Over the past few months, national politicians have begun to propose important changes in our public education system. Specifically, they have proposed that some aspects of higher education be funded in ways similar to how we fund K-12 schooling. The Obama Administration, for instance, has proposed that community college education—essentially the first two years of a baccalaureate degree—be funded through tax dollars and made available at no additional cost to the student. Some have expanded this to suggest that all four years of the undergraduate degree at state colleges and universities shoudl be free to the student.
This is not as revolutionary an idea as it may sound. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was not unusual for students to leave school at the end of the 8th grade. In many cases, students were required to pay tuition to attend high school. However, recognizing that the skills needed for citizens to succeed in the industrial economy, the U.S. made high school universally available—funded by local property taxes—and, soon after, began to require it. A high school degree became the minimum qualification for many entry-level jobs.
Let’s assume, then, that the current call to make at least the first two years of college available free to the student will result in at least half of the baccalaureate degree being available as part of basic citizen education. Over time, then, most American teenagers will continue past twelfth grade to get a two-year postsecondary education—a technical certification, an associate degree, or the first half of a baccalaureate degree.
How might this change how we organize education? Some thoughts:
There already is a fair amount of overlap between the high school and undergraduate general education curricula. If the majority of high school graduates go on to the first two years of college, we should take a fresh look at what both schools and colleges are teaching and strengthen the curricula. The curriculum overlap is evident in the number of high school grads who can test out of college general education courses and in the increasingly common practice of “dual enrollment” courses that grant both high school and college credit. In the short run, it would make sense to build a stronger system to support dual enrollment, reducing both the cost of college and the time to degree. What we need, as I have noted in an earlier posting, is to organize a system that encourages sharing of courses for dual enrollment and to share open educational resources across institutions.
In the long run, though, the movement of more high school students on to free postsecondary education calls for the field to take a fresh look at the combined high school and college general education curricula to see how they can be streamlined and made more effective. The history/civics curriculum is a good case in point. Using my local school district as an example, students study civics and basic economic concepts in eighth grade, world history in ninth and tenth, American history in eleventh, and choose two courses from a list of options (Democracy in Action, Current Issues, Economics, Sociology, and Psychology, along with a list of other courses for advanced students) in twelfth grade. Then, when they move on to college (using Penn State as an example), they may choose from a wide range of humanities and social/behavioral sciences courses as part of the general education distribution requirement. The challenge, as increasing numbers of students move directly on to college, will be make the entire scope of this requirement more efficient, but also more coherent. For instance, it would be essential to ensure that “civics”—citizen education in American history, the Constitution, etc.—be included in the first twelve years, so that students are prepared to become voters when they turn 18. That said, the need to revisit the structure and continuity of the curriculum applies equally to literature and the humanities, math, the sciences, social sciences, and the arts.
The mid-twentieth century high school curriculum included required courses in home economics (for the girls) and shop (for the boys). The assumption, I suspect, was that young people needed to have these practical skills in order to take on their adult roles in the home. While the old model assumed social roles that were already out of date by the 1960s, we might ask: what practical skills must students have today to be effective adults, regardless of their vocational/professional choices?
In the process, curriculum policy makers might also consider the role of service in universal education. One implication of the free college movement is that many, if not most, young people will continue their role as students into their adult years. The new curriculum might consider how to give students the opportunity to explore life options. Perhaps a year of service—or other kinds of extended practical experiences that get students involved in their communities—should be built into the new curriculum.
It may be many years before college becomes a societal expectation for most students. However, we should begin exploring the implications today.