Nov 14 2015

Op-Ed: A New Way to Improve College Enrollment

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This commentary was first published on November 14, 2015 by The New York Times.

American public schools do a good job of getting students into college, but a poor job preparing them to succeed once they’re there. While more than two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in college, nearly two-thirds of those arrive on campus unprepared for college-level rigor.

Instead of trying to solve this problem together, high schools and colleges typically operate in silos — high schools concentrate on increasing graduation rates, while universities pay little attention to what’s happening in the local public schools.

The situation is entirely different in Long Beach, Calif. In that predominantly immigrant city south of Los Angeles, where a third of the children under age 17 live in poverty, the public schools have teamed up with the local community college and the state university to confront the impact of poverty, racial discrimination and limited educational opportunities.

The Long Beach College Promise guarantees high school graduates a tuition-free year at Long Beach City College. If they meet the minimum academic requirements, they’re assured admission to California State University, Long Beach, one of the country’s top regional schools.

This guarantee has been a game-changer for a city whose economy was battered by the closing of the naval base, the decimation of the local aerospace industry and, more recently, the Great Recession. Three-quarters of high school graduates now enroll in college, 10 percent above the national average. Many stay in Long Beach after earning a bachelor’s degree, improving the city’s economy. Early awareness, college preparedness, college access — it’s a strategy worth emulating.

Collaboration starts with 4-year-olds, as Mayor Robert Garcia has made universal preschool for disadvantaged children his top priority. Long Beach City College President Eloy Ortiz Oakley and Long Beach State President Jane Close Conoley have joined the mayor’s fundraising drive. They understand the long-term value of early education. “We put up a picture of a preschool student,” Mr. Oakley has said. “Then I ask my staff, ‘What are we going to do today to ensure that in 2027 this student will be on the platform graduating?’”

All fourth and fifth graders, together with their parents, tour the local college campuses. “Most of our parents never thought college was a possibility for their kids,” the Long Beach school superintendent, Christopher Steinhauser, points out. “But those visits can change their minds.”

Every high school junior takes an early assessment exam, which few California districts require. Those who fare poorly get a rigorous dose of English and math, giving them the skills needed to satisfy the state universities’ admissions requirements. Going to college is increasingly on these students’ minds. Last spring they signed up for more than 10,000 advance placement exams, a two-year increase of more than 41 percent. This year’s graduates garnered $96 million in scholarships, $40 million more than in 2012.

Collaboration is ubiquitous, with about 200 joint ventures linking the public schools and colleges. Among these are high school courses in Mandarin and ethnic studies, designed by Long Beach State professors.

The university has demonstrated its commitment where it counts most — admission. With more than 56,000 applications, the eighth highest nationally, it could admit a class composed entirely of students with gleaming grade point averages to raise its national ranking. Instead, it keeps a seat for every eligible local applicant. Although they have high school G.P.A.s well below students from elsewhere, they are equally likely to graduate. The same holds true for Long Beach City College transfers, also favored in admissions. This locally focused strategy pays off — the overall graduation rate, 67 percent in six years, is 20 percent higher than that at comparable schools, and the 63 percent graduation rate for poor and minority students is 25 percent higher than at similar institutions.

The community college is preparing more students to transfer to a four-year institution, and many go to Long Beach State. Instead of consigning freshmen with weak placement test scores to dead-end remedial classes, the college relies on high school grades, assuring that students who can succeed in college-level math and English courses are accepted, regardless of the test scores. As a result, the number of completed college-level math courses has doubled and the number of completed English courses quintupled. Minority students, who often flub placement exams, have been the biggest beneficiaries.

While there’s work to be done — too few of Long Beach’s high school graduates have the credentials that state universities demand, and the community college’s completion rate is still slightly below the state average — each institution keeps getting better. “What we do is surprisingly simple but amazingly powerful,” Ms. Conoley told me. “We communicate all the time. No turf. No bureaucracies. Just building and evaluating programs with the goal of removing barriers and supporting student success.”

The Long Beach collaboration offers a textbook illustration of what business gurus call “continuous improvement.” The willingness of educators, from pre-K to Ph.D., to shelve their egos and do right by the community makes all the difference.