New research demonstrates the importance of postsecondary education and career- and college-ready high school graduates

Real Clear Education Today highlights some studies particularly pertinent to current affairs in our state. 

A high school diploma doesn’t mean what it used to. That’s the conclusion of an eye-opening new study from Hechinger. It found that the vast majority of public two and four-year colleges enroll students who are not ready for college-level work.

To make matters worse, some companies are also discovering that high school educations are no longer sufficient for skilled jobs. The New York Times reports that when Siemens Energy opened a gas turbine production plant in Charlotte, NC about 10,000 people applied for roughly 800 positions. But fewer than 15 percent could pass a ninth-grade level reading, writing and math screening test.

Let’s take a closer look at the Hechinger study

Most schools place students in what are called remedial courses in math or English before they can move on to a full load of college-level, credit-bearing courses – a process that is a financial drain on not only students, but also colleges and taxpayers, costing up to an estimated $7 billion a year.

Data from 911 two- and four-year colleges revealed that 96 percent of schools enrolled students who required remediation in the 2014-15 academic year, the most comprehensive recent numbers. At least 209 schools placed more than half of incoming students in at least one remedial course.

That remedial education often fails to result in successful completion of a postsecondary program.

Indeed, research has shown that students who enroll in these remedial courses often never even make it into the classes that will count toward a degree. A similarly wide-ranging 2012 report by Complete College America determined that nearly half of entering students at two-year schools and a fifth at four-year schools were placed in remedial classes in the fall of 2006. Nearly 40 percent of students at two-year schools and a quarter of those at four-year schools failed to complete their remedial classes, that report found.

We called attention to the problem in our foundation report two years ago.

The Washington State Board of Education has established a goal of increasing that number to 89 percent by the end of this decade. The state must meet or exceed this objective to become one of the top 10 states for high school graduation.

But the challenge doesn’t end with high school graduation. Of students who graduated from public high school in 2009-10 and enrolled in community and technical college in 2010-11, 57 percent enrolled in at least one pre-college (developmental or remedial) course — most often in math. These disappointing numbers must be foremost in policymakers’ minds as they consider important questions of education policy and funding.

The NYT story cited above confirms recent findings from the Washington Roundtable and Boston Consulting Group. Our post on the Roundtable-BCG report noted,

The Washington economy will provide 740,000 job openings in the next five years, according to a study released today by the Washington Roundtable and the Boston Consulting Group (full reportfact sheetvideomore). But for students in Washington classrooms today to claim those jobs, the study concludes, they will need to earn a postsecondary credential.

Currently, fewer than one-third of Washington students go on to complete a training program or college after high school. That number must double if our students are going to be prepared for the best jobs.

The NYT report begins by taking a look at job loss resulting from automation. (Here’s another good look at automation’s effect on employment.) NYT reporter Jeffery J. Selingo writes,

…according to a study by Ball State University, nearly nine in 10 jobs that disappeared since 2000 were lost to automation in the decades-long march to an information-driven economy, not to workers in other countries.

Even if those jobs returned, a high school diploma is simply no longer good enough to fill them. Yet rarely discussed in the political debate over lost jobs are the academic skills needed for today’s factory-floor positions, and the pathways through education that lead to them.

It’s not just about four-year degrees.

Many high school students rush off to four-year campuses not ready for the academic work or not sure why they are there. Government data show that 44 percent of new graduates enroll directly in a four-year college, but based on recent trends, less than half of them will earn a degree within four years. And though two-year colleges have long been identified as the institutions that fill the job-training role, some 80 percent of community college students say they intend to go on for a bachelor’s degree, or they leave with generic associate degrees that are of little value in the job market.

Students in the United States are offered few feasible routes to middle-skill careers — jobs that require more education than a high school diploma but typically not a bachelor’s degree. The National Skills Coalition, a nonprofit organization, calculates that middle-skill jobs — in computer technology, health care, construction, high-skill manufacturing and other fields — account for 54 percent of the labor market, but only 44 percent of workers are sufficiently trained.

With education at the top of this state’s legislative agenda, policy and funding both matter. We’d again cite the Washington Roundtable report

There will be 740,000 job openings in Washington in the next five years. State job growth over this period is expected to be nearly three times the national average. The majority of job opportunities—particularly those that will support upward mobility and good quality of life—will be filled with workers who have postsecondary education or training. Recognizing the need to prepare our kids for these opportunities, the Washington Roundtable has set an ambitious goal: By 2030, 70 percent of Washington students will earn a postsecondary credential by the age of 26.

It is, as they say, an ambitious goal, but one that also captures the tremendous opportunity our state’s economy is presenting the young people currently enrolled in the K-12 schools.