Two news articles running within days of each other provide more evidence of the massive amount of confusion the public is getting about the real education situation in Kentucky.
Over near the East end of the state, the Daily Independent in Ashland complains that college enrollment in the state is moving in the “Wrong Direction.” The paper laments the drop in freshmen enrolling in Kentucky’s university system this fall, placing the blame on the rising cost of tuition.
The tuition rise seems like a reasonable explanation for the enrollment fall-off – until you read the Courier-Journal’s “Valley closes college ‘deal.’” The Courier reports that seniors at the Valley Traditional High School in Louisville just attended an event where they were encouraged to go on to college by representatives from 16 colleges. These students got a host of financial information about how kids from this high poverty school can afford to go on to postsecondary schools.
Even Louisville’s Mayor Jerry Abramson got in the act. “There is no one in this room who can say ‘I cannot afford to go to college.’ It’s just not true,” Abramson said. “You may not want to go to college, but you can afford to.”
How’s that, again? How can the paper in Ashland say college enrollment is down due to costs while the mayor of Louisville says even his poorest kids can afford higher education?
Let’s sort through this confusion.
The mayor of Louisville is partly correct – there are lots of ways for kids to come up with money for college – if they really are qualified to go.
The problem is that very important point – qualified to go.
Valley High is one of the very lowest performing high schools in Kentucky. During the last school year, the kids who are now in the senior class got exceptionally low scores on the ACT college entrance test. Out of 232 public high schools in the state, Valley ranked 224 with scores in English, Reading, Math, and Science that were all far below the ACT Benchmark scores that signal decent odds of success in a typical college. If most of these kids can get into postsecondary education at all, they are going to require a lot of non-credit remedial courses. Those non-credit courses run up the expense and time required to get a certificate or degree. Without a lot of self-motivation and willingness to pick up a considerable amount of debt, most kids with such low ACT scores won’t make it. That’s one major reason why only half of Kentucky’s entering college freshmen graduate, even after six (not just four) long and expensive years of study.
I find it hard to believe the mayor doesn’t know the sad facts about a school in his city. I certainly support him in trying to encourage kids to aim higher, but some realism is needed – along with some real mayoral heat concerning this chronically low performing school. After all, these kids who are being left behind are his constituents. Is the mayor camped at meetings of both the local board of education and the state board of education? He should be.
So, does this mean the Ashland paper got it right? Not necessarily.
The Daily Independent implies the statewide drop in college enrollment is solely due to rising tuition. I would suggest more factors are at play, including one really key item – more kids now understand that if they don’t get a good education in the public school system, it is expensive and time-consuming to try to fix that in college. Maybe more of these kids are simply recognizing the obvious – they are not prepared, and fixing their deficiencies is going to cost more than they want to spend.
So, here’s another reason for Kentucky’s dropping college enrollment – the continued poor performance of our public schools that is masked by inflated scores from our CATS school assessments. Because CATS is generally the only testing data that kids and parents get until well on in the child’s school career, inflation in the CATS scores provides a misleading picture of actual educational progress. Once kids finally take the ACT and learn how well they actually are prepared, more of our kids might simply be realizing that they are not prepared to make the big sacrifices college will require.
The fix here isn’t to throw more money into college tuition for kids who are highly unlikely to succeed. Rather, we need to seriously focus in on why these kids are being failed by the entire school system in such large numbers. A great place to start is to put the CATS assessments under a real microscope to figure out why they are giving us such inflated reports of progress that mislead everyone from mayors to newspaper editors. We need to do it soon, because the mayor and the Ashland paper are both right about one thing, in the new economy, having more than just a high school education isn’t just a ‘nice-to-have;’ it’s an essential.