WASHINGTON — At an education summit addressing the U.S. high school dropout epidemic, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced on Tuesday an administration plan to enlist governors into pushing their states to boost college graduation rates while providing millions in financial incentives for colleges to do the same.
Appearing at the first annual Grad Nation Summit, which focuses heavily on K-12 reform, Biden used the occasion to trumpet the Comprehensive Grant Program, a competitive program that makes $20 million available to colleges to support innovative practices aimed at increasing completion rates. He also released a new college completion “toolkit” that features a variety of “low-cost or no-cost” strategies also aimed at increasing college graduation rates. The strategies include aligning high school graduation standards with minimal college requirements.
“When President Obama and I talk about leading the world in college graduates by 2020, it isn’t about winning bragging rights,” Biden said. “It’s about ensuring that every child in this country has the ability to reach his or her potential. If we don’t do this, kiss goodbye to leading in the 21st century.”
The vice president also lamented that less than half of all college students earn a degree within six years of enrollment. “We’ve got an education system that works more like a funnel than it does like a pipeline,” he said.
According to Biden, the grants will be awarded later this year. Community colleges will also be eligible to compete.
Biden also said the battle to boost college completion must be fought in the realm of secondary education. “The single best predictor of successful college completion is not family income, it is not parental education, it’s not race. What it is, is how academically rigorous a student’s high school curriculum is.”
Grad Nation’s Civic Marshall Plan
Organized by the Colin and Alma Powell-backed America’s Promise Alliance, the Grad Nation Summit builds on the dropout prevention gatherings the Alliance has helped convene over the past few years.
Grad Nation also features a “Civic Marshall Plan” that includes specific goals to boost graduation rates.
The ultimate goal is to support the Obama administration’s college completion agenda, which seeks to increase the high school graduation rate to 90 percent nationally and no less than 80 percent in any given school. Currently many urban school districts are seeing a third to a half of their students drop out. Robert Balfanz, director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and a key collaborator in the Grad Nation campaign, has coined the phrase “dropout factories” to describe these troubled schools.
During workshops and panel discussions throughout the day, Balfanz and others touted programs such as Diplomas Now, which seeks to pair at-risk students with adult mentors. Another program, City Year, puts young adults between the ages of 17 and 24 in some of the nation’s most troubled schools as full-time mentors and tutors.
Dan Cardinali, president of Communities in Schools, which developed the Diplomas Now program, said one of the major lessons of the initiative is that paid and trained staff are critical.
“If you think about the kids you all have, whether your own or loved ones or friends’ kids, you would never send your child when he or she is sick to a volunteer,” Cardinali said. “You would send him to the best professional you could find.”
Children in poverty often live in “sick environments,” he said, and thus need similar expert assistance.
Several speakers touted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, a state-led effort coordinated by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. Among other things, the standards call for making sure that K-12 standards are aligned with college and career expectations.
But several in the audience questioned whether the standards would actually lead to the desired outcome or just leave college administrators and employers with a false sense of hope.
Esteban Olivares, director of academic advising and retention at the University of the District of Columbia, sought to learn more about the discourse taking place in the pre-college world in order to better inform what he does at the postsecondary level.
While he said he found much of the summit valuable, he said he would have liked to have seen more attention on youths who drop out of college for reasons that transcend their academic preparedness.
” They talk about college readiness and decreasing the number of students that have to take developmental courses,” Olivares said. “But the research shows that students coming in with a 4.0 GPA, high International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement scores, are still at risk of dropping out.
“There’s a lot of social emotional intelligence that students need to stay in college,” said Olivares, whose own college has a graduation rate that hovers between 8 and 10 percent. “I would have hoped there would have been more discussion about how do we work on making sure students not only graduate from high school but from college.”