Obama's Grad Initiative is Promising

This week President Obama called for the creation of the American Graduation Initiative, a $12 billion effort to encourage degree completion especially Associate degrees and certificates. America has slipped in high school and college completion rates to the middle of the OECD pack. David Brooks explained why we need to do better and endorsed the President’s proposal. He’s right, it could help.

I’m a fan of community colleges. Dual enrollment at one up the street saved my daughter 1.5 years of college tuition. They are the great American open access system. They are cheap, close by, and instruction is often surprisingly good—frequently better than lower division courses at a state university.

But we should use a big investment like the one the President proposed to make some big improvements:

1. Common placement exam: most community colleges operate independently, pick their own exam and cut scores. Placement exams are the big hidden gateway in American education—young people fail the test, get sent to remedial courses to learn what they should have learned in high school, and drop out. High school exit exams should be community college entrance exams—pass one exam and you can graduate and start earning college credit.

2. Dual enrollment: as the President suggested, an expansion of dual enrollment programs would allow high school students to get a jump start on college. If the common placement exams were online, high school students could take the exam anytime and start earning college credit as soon as they were ready. To fully take advantage of this opportunity for everyone to save money (states and families), states will need a ‘money follows the student’ system (this is not very popular with schools that don’t want to compete for kids).

3. Sell competence not credits: community colleges could lead the higher ed transition from doing time to demonstrating performance. Most community colleges have small credit recovery labs—early examples of personalized online learning. Investment in a handful of pilot programs that blend online and onsite learning around career competencies would make a big contribution to the field.

The president’s proposal offers exciting opportunities. There’s lots of Hilary Pennington in this proposal. As founder of Jobs for the Future, Hilary orchestrated School to Work for Clinton. We worked together on the Early College High School Initiative and the alternative high school initiative. For a decade she’s been advocating that we must Double the Numbers of young people earning degrees and certificates. She’s taken her DTN campaign to the Gates Foundation. Assuming that something like the President’s proposal is enacted it will be a career crowning accomplishment for Hilary; no one has worked harder on this agenda. It will be a great day for her and a promising one for America.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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