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No easy shortcut / August 09, 2017
Things can get awfully complicated, awfully fast when the subject is community college dual enrollment and career and technical education programs— all fodder for The Sun’s front page lead story last week — because:

» College is very expensive,

» An economy characterized by career uncertainty and increasing wealth inequality means that a college degree can be more important than ever,

» It’s tempting to try to get around the cost problem by offering college coursework, for valuable credit, during students’ high school years,

»Yet it’s also very hard to replicate the rigor of a college-level education in high school.

Let’s start with the last point first: Old fogeys (like myself) might wonder, “What’s wrong with high school? Is there a problem with traditional high school math? Or English? Or science? Shouldn’t high schools teach students at a high school level?” The answer to this latter question, in your correspondent’s humble opinion, is “yes,” but plainly high school serves many purposes: it should prepare kids to head off to college, go directly into the workforce, and otherwise set youths on a course to reasonably prosperous careers.

The stakes didn’t used to be this high. Back in the days when an 18-year-old could transition from the high school commencement stage to the manufacturing plant floor in the blink of an eye (and still earn a decent living), the general level of satisfaction with high school was a lot higher than it is now. Maybe this residual good will blinded prior generations of decision-makers in Mecklenburg County to the need to dramatically upgrade the quality of local education because, by golly, if senior year was great back then, it at least must be serviceable now. Abracadabra, I give you two high school buildings in the county that exceeded their sell-by dates sometime during the White House administration of Jimmy Carter.

For present purposes, however, let’s just file this longstanding complaint about deficient local school budgets under the heading of “different column for a different day” (and seemingly one in the rear view mirror, with county poised to build a $100 million school complex for students in grades 6-12).

The front page piece in our Aug. 3 edition, by our intrepid reporter Susan Kyte, examined a different topic: financial strains in the relationship between local school divisions and the community college system, specifically Southside Virginia Community College, which provides college-level dual enrollment classes and industry-certified CTE (career technical education) programs to area high school students. The differences between dual enrollment and CTE are significant and varied, but the unifying theme of this discussion is a simple one: Who pays? How should the community college system and local school divisions share the costs of these programs? And how much should these costs in turn be passed on to the students and families that benefit?

There’s serious talk at the state level of off-loading more of the expense of community college dual enrollment and CTE classes onto local school divisions. This, especially in the case of high school dual enrollment, has prompted a look at potential alternatives, such as Advanced Placement classes that could supplement — or altogether supplant — dual enrollment. There’s a long backstory to this debate, fueled by controlling tendencies throughout the educational hierarchy, but the bottom line is that dual enrollment draws more flak than AP from many area educators because the former program is so ubiquitous. It’s quite a bold claim to say you’re going to send high school graduates off to college with half of their journey already finalized, and skeptics would raise the same criticisms of AP if it, not dual enrollment, were the chosen vehicle for touting this feat.

Program comparisons aside, the basic idea behind dual enrollment and AP is the same: impart a high-quality, college prep education, and help families save on their college costs. (Advocates of dual enrollment tend to stress the latter as the program’s main virtue, while fans of AP are more likely to highlight the former, and in all situations the reality must be judged on a case-by-case basis, depending on how well each program is administered.) Turning to the topic of community college CTE classes — which are offered in career fields such as welding, physical therapy and software coding that high schools are ill-equipped to teach — again, the potential benefits are obvious: teenagers can start apprenticeships in high school that could end up paying lifetime benefits. As sales pitches go, it’s a good one.

But what’s the substance with the sizzle? Real, or imaginary? Whether we’re talking about college or career pathways, the driving force behind the college-in-high school movement is the rarely discussed urge to take shortcuts: driven by costs, naturally. And cost considerations are hardly trifling. But there are better ways to assess the value of an academic program than by looking sideways at college tuition bills.

We’re not serving the best interests of kids if we grease the way through the first year or two of college without demanding true college-level proficiency in high school. (Don’t get me wrong. Most colleges have their share of academic dreck in the course catalog, although I’d argue this is more the exception than the rule.) And what about these high school career apprenticeships? Do they measure up to the experience formerly known as “learning on the job?” Whatever happened to the idea that employers should take moldable lumps of clay (as you young people surely enjoy being called) and turn them into productive workers? When did we start to think that the traditional employer responsibility for job training could be shoehorned into the brief period of a student’s high school career? Is the dish best cooked with the oven on high, or would it be better left to simmer for a while?

I couldn’t help but to take note of an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this week: “Report: Va. needs new ways to fund universities; students, families paying too much of college.” No kidding. The report by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) noted that “erratic state funding [for colleges and universities] has shifted most of the burden onto families through rising tuition and fees.” Today, paying for an undergraduate education at state public colleges and universities consumes almost half of the per capita disposable family income of Virginia families, compared to less than a third of income some 15 years ago. “The lack of continuity and predictability [with tuition increases] has limited the ability of students and their families to plan for the cost of college education,” SCHEV concludes.

The T-D story makes for a depressing read. SCHEV estimates that you’d have to add $660 million to the state budget to take us back to the halcyon days of the early 2000s when a college education cost an arm and a leg, but not the liver and spleen and carotid artery. State lawmakers reacted to the SVHEC report by — you guessed it — calling for more belt-tightening in the higher ed system. Some of the brilliant ideas floating around include (a) reducing support for the flagship universities (University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, William & Mary) and redistributing the savings to smaller colleges, (b) robbing the budget for graduate school degrees to pay for undergraduate programs, and (c) admitting more out-of-state students who pay higher rates of tuition. The latter option isn’t a funding reduction, per se, but it’s a cut of a different kind. Is it any wonder folks are eager for their kids to lop off a year or two of college before they’ve even gotten out of high school?

How about this: how about we stop fooling ourselves and start plugging money back into Virginia’s colleges and universities, which remain a source of pride in the Commonwealth despite the best efforts of lawmakers to screw everything up? If we could restore tuition to somewhat reasonable levels, the need for higher ed shortcuts like dual enrollment obviously would abate. What about the non-college, career-training track? High school and community college CTE apprenticeship should be beefed up. But all such job training programs, at any level, suffer whenever they’re detached from actual jobs. We could be doing a lot more to incentivize employers to hire and train young employees, at least taking us part of the way back to the days when kids learned the ropes on the shop floor or inside the office suite, instead of in between their cafeteria break and the afternoon school bell.

It was ten years ago that Virginia eliminated its estate tax on the inherited wealth of its richest families, a revenue source that probably would be good for a cool $200 million or so today. (Signing the 2007 estate tax repeal bill remains the worst thing that then-governor Tim Kaine has done in an otherwise laudable political career). This tax giveaway was only one step in a long, slow decline in public services under a guiding conservative philosophy that says government is incapable of doing anything right. So now here we are. And the question must be asked: Are we better off with a highly unequal society where well-to-do families have unfettered access to (and control of) the machinery of career and income advancement, and everyone else is expected to run the gauntlet just a little bit faster? Or, like the Porsche driver of marketing fame, should we accept no substitutes? With education and training so important to everything else that follows in life, the answer ought to be obvious — especially where our kids are concerned.

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