Tuesday, May 15, 2007


A few years ago, my state established a merit scholarship program. High-achieving high school grads are eligible for substantial scholarships to attend their local cc's for two years. The state sees it as a way to increase the capacity of the state higher ed system without the cost of building.

We advertise the program on our website. We advertise it at open houses, in newspapers, on public access tv, and to the local guidance counselors. We host every guidance counselor in the area at least once a year, and make certain that they know all the ins and outs of the program.

Yesterday I attended a special event we host for some local high school teachers. When we mentioned the program, you could see the blank stares. As we outlined it, you could hear gasps. They had never heard of it.

I did some asking around. According to the folks in Admissions, who have been fighting this battle for some time, the guidance counselors have strict orders from their superintendents not to mention the program to their students, for fear that the students will use it.

We wouldn't want that...

Although the scholarship program is statewide, superintendents are essentially local. To a local K-12 superintendent, the needs of the state higher ed system are fairly abstract, but the need to keep local property values up through a high profile high school is concrete. And one of the primary statistics used to differentiate one public school district from another is the percentage of graduates it sends to four-year colleges and universities. No distinctions are made within that group, so the University of Chicago and Struggling State College count the same. But cc's get their own category, and too high a percentage in that category drags down a public school's ranking.

The shame of it, of course, is that some of the students who would have fit the program never hear of it and get pushed to four-year colleges away from home, where they promptly crash and burn, then come back to us in January with a palpable sense of failure. (These students are academically capable, but often just not ready to leave home yet.) From a superintendent's perspective, though, that's invisible. His job is done when the graduate shows up in September at St. Whomever's or Nothing Special State. If that same student comes back to us in January, that's not the high school's problem. But if that student started here in the first place, then the high school might drop a notch in the rankings, and no good can come of that.

So we have the state trying to use cc's as feeders, and local districts doing everything in their power to stop that from happening. Meanwhile, the cc's struggle for enrollment, and guidance counselors actually hide information from students they know it could help, so they won't get fired.

Your tax dollars at work!

Actually, that's not completely true. The 'rankings' of high schools are not taxpayer funded. (To the extent that taxpayers fund rankings, they're through standardized tests. Standardized tests have other flaws, but at least they don't punish cc's for existing.) The (property) market-driven need for invidious distinctions leads private parties to generate rankings of their own. That's fine, and they're certainly within their rights to do so, but the outsize weight given to very superficial measures is defeating a program that actually makes sense.

My proposed measure: don't track where students start. Track where they finish. How many graduates have, say, B.A.'s within five years? How many get into medical school? The reality of the situation is that admissions standards across the 'four-year' sector vary so widely that the criterion is meaningless. (This measure might also shift focus somewhat from creating slots for kids to be 'recording secretary of the Spanish club' to actually preparing kids academically for college. This strikes me as a good thing.) It's not at all clear to me that the kid who spends a year at Struggling State only to drink his way out reflects a better high school experience than the kid who starts at a cc, transfers to a four-year school, graduates, and makes his way in the world. But as far as the local press is concerned, the first suggests a strong high school, and the second a weak one. In this case, the market is wrong.

So we muddle along, one foot planted firmly on the accelerator, the other on the brake. The guidance counselors know and can't tell; the teachers have no idea; the legislature can't figure out why the program isn't gaining traction; and my numbers aren't pretty. There's gotta be a better way.