Politics & Policy

It’s Elementary

Kerry skips K-12.

John Kerry recently unveiled his plan to make college more affordable. His “Service for College” initiative would offer students free college tuition in exchange for two years of public service doing things like teaching in urban public schools or working on homeland security. Kerry hopes this plan will make college more accessible to those who otherwise would have a tough time paying the bills, particularly low-income minority students.

Unfortunately, while it may be desirable to engage more young people in public service, Kerry’s plan is unlikely to significantly increase the number of students who enroll in college. Contrary to popular belief, the evidence indicates that the cost of tuition prevents very few students from pursuing a college degree. The problem isn’t that students can’t afford college–it’s that not enough students possess the academic qualifications necessary even to apply. This cannot be fixed through better financing for tuition: It requires reforming K-12 education.

#ad#In order to even be considered for admission at almost any four-year college, students must meet three requirements. They must have earned a high-school diploma, have completed a minimum number of academic courses (usually a prescribed number of English, math, and science classes), and they must also be able to read at a basic level.

Using data provided by the U.S. Department of Education, a recent study by the Manhattan Institute estimated the number of students in the nation who were college ready. The study found that nationally only 32 percent of students leave high school prepared to apply to college. The picture is particularly bleak for minorities: Just 20 percent of African-American students and 16 percent of Hispanic students are even eligible to apply to a four-year college at the end of high school.

For the high-school class of 2000, that translates to an estimated 1,298,920 who were college-ready, a figure very close to the 1,341,000 students who actually enrolled in college for the first time in that year. The same is true for minority groups: Hispanic students make up about 9 percent of the college-ready population and about 7 percent of students entering college; African Americans make up about 9 percent of all college-ready students and about 11 percent of incoming freshmen. The pattern is similar for white and Asian students as well.

This indicates that there is not a large pool of students who are academically qualified to apply to college but who are prevented from doing so by a lack of funds–or by anything else, for that matter. Just about all students who are academically able to go to college do go to college.

Thus no plan can increase college participation simply by providing greater access to funds. And since nearly all minority students eligible to enroll in college already do, attempting to increase their number by expanding affirmative-action policies is similarly futile. This does not mean that existing funding and affirmative-action programs are entirely useless–they might be part of the reason that almost everyone qualified for college currently enrolls–but it does mean that increasing such programs cannot improve college access.

Imagine the K-12 education system as a pipeline. Students enter the pipe in kindergarten, and should flow smoothly all the way through to college admission at the end. The problem is that the pipeline is leaking as students are not given the necessary academic preparation early on. Opening the spigot at the end of the pipe wider does no good if little more than a trickle reaches the end in the first place. The only way to increase the flow is to fix the holes in the pipe where students are being lost prematurely.

This is especially true in our nation’s urban centers, where many low-income minority students go to school. For example, 58 percent of 8th-grade students in Atlanta scored below the “Basic” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2002, a highly respected standardized test administered by the U.S. Department of Education. Even if college were free–or, for that matter, even if we paid students to attend–students who are this poorly prepared simply can’t be admitted.

The only way to increase college access is to address the problems of K-12 education. Of course, Kerry has proposals to do that as well, but they’re all too familiar. As he sees it, the solution is to spend more money. But this is what we have tried for nearly three decades now, and it has consistently failed.

Over the last 30 years, adjusting for inflation, per-pupil spending on education has doubled, now totaling almost $9,000 per student. We have seen no return on this enormous investment in the public schools. Over the same time period, test scores have remained flat and graduation rates have actually declined slightly. It is highly unlikely that continuing on this path will increase the number of students that leave the K-12 education system with the qualifications necessary to succeed in college.

What is clear is that improving K-12 education requires not more funds, but a fundamental change in how public schools operate. Under the current system, schools have little incentive to educate students, because they get paid the same whether their students learn basic skills or not. The incentives are particularly perverse in the inner cities, where families find it much harder to escape from failing schools by moving away because their household incomes are lower, affording them less flexibility. Schools have little incentive to effectively educate children when the students, along with the funding they generate, are essentially stuck there.

There are two promising reforms that effectively change the incentives for public schools and could substantially increase the number of students who are prepared for college. High-stakes testing, now embodied by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, provides consequences for schools if they do not improve performance. School choice, as represented by voucher and charter-school programs, makes it easier for students to leave their public schools for other, better-performing schools. Choice gives failing schools an incentive to improve because when they lose students, they lose funding. Research has shown each of these reforms to be effective in improving public-school performance. But Kerry rejects both, clinging instead to the habitually fruitless path of spending more money.

Perhaps there will come a day when there are significantly more students qualified to attend college than actually have the financial resources to do so. If that day comes, a plan like Kerry’s “Service for College” initiative might make sense. Unfortunately, we are nowhere near that point, nor are we likely to be until we significantly improve the performance of our K-12 public schools.

Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow and Marcus A. Winters is a research associate at the Manhattan Institute’s Education Research Office.

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