Monday, November 10, 2008

College at 16?

An alert reader sent me a link to this story about New Hampshire. Apparently, the Granite State is considering funneling most high school students into community colleges after tenth grade. (Tellingly, the story allows that "those who want to go to a prestigious university may stay and finish the final two years.")

This is one of those ideas that carries in it a real grain of truth, but that takes it much too far.

The grain of truth is that the later part of high school is frequently academically spotty. Since many states only require, say, two or three years of most subjects, many seniors start senior year already having met nearly every graduation requirement. In most cases, states deal with that through sponsoring 'dual enrollment' with local community colleges, and/or through AP or IB courses. All of those arrangements allow the junior or senior who is already bumping the academic ceiling of high school to take college-level courses, sometimes for dual credit, while remaining enrolled in high school. (In my limited observation, the advantage of dual-enrollment over AP or IB courses is the difference between transcripted credits and test scores. Some colleges that will only use AP scores for placement purposes -- rather than actually granting course credit -- will accept transcripted credits in transfer.)

Nationally, the trend in average age of cc students is conspicuously downward, which is at least partially a reflection of the popularity of dual enrollment. Add a whole cohort of 16 and 17 year olds, and the effect on a college's average age is predictable.

The New Hampshire plan apparently takes dual enrollment all the way out. Instead of taking some college courses in high school, why not truncate high school altogether and get a jump on college?

It strikes me as a little too convenient.

First, there's that part about 'those who want to go to a prestigious university...' Why would prestigious universities want an extra two years of academic preparation? Could it be that...I'm going out on a limb here...there's some academic value to those last two years? Perhaps that the typical 18 year old is more mature than the typical 16 year old? I'm guessing that the student who has had pre-calc in high school will do better in calculus than the student who hasn't. Call it a hunch.

There's also the democratic rite of passage part of high school. I get as tired of the high school 'coming of age' dramas as everybody else, but I think part of the reason they survive is that high school is the last time that every social class is forced to cohabit. Granted, residential segregation does a number on that, but even so, high school is a common experience. Yes, some of it amounts to what Newt Gingrich memorably called 'subsidized dating,' but I'd even suggest there can be developmental value in that.

My preferred solution would be to greatly improve the academic quality of the average high school experience. The tippity-top is already sufficiently challenged, what with dual enrollment and AP/IB courses and the whole selective-college-application-dance. But the vast majority doesn't fit that description. That's where the work needs to be done. Rather than throwing up our hands and simply making community colleges the new 11th grade -- which, if implemented, would have the disastrous effect of making community colleges the new 11th grade -- let's fix the 11th grade. Prepare the students so they're capable of succeeding at whatever comes next, whether it be college, trade school, the military, or work. Any of those requires a certain work ethic and sense of responsibility, along with a decent sense of math, writing, and the basic facts of the world.

Anyway, that's my first take. Wise and worldly readers -- especially those in New Hampshire -- what say you?