Should colleges worry about lower high school standards?

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It’s no surprise at this point that the pandemic had a negative effect on current college enrollment levels. But a recent study from the Brookings Institution examined how the past few years affected high school graduation and student entry into college — the end of the pipeline between K-12 and college.

Higher Ed Dive talked to Douglas Harris, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and one of the report’s authors. Harris is also an economics professor and chair of public education at Tulane University, a private nonprofit institution in New Orleans. He discussed the findings and what clues they might offer for college leaders looking to reverse enrollment declines.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

HIGHER ED DIVE: You looked at how the pandemic affected high school graduation and college entry. What did you find?

Douglas Harris

Courtesy of Tulane University


DOUGLAS HARRIS: We found that high school graduation rates did not decline and actually picked up slightly in the spring of 2020 — just after the pandemic started to take hold — and then picked up a little bit in the spring of ‘21. And that was a little bit surprising. When you think about the other educational outcomes, there was a lot of concern about students dropping out and it just didn’t show up in the graduation rates.

We looked at whether that was an artifact of reporting. A lot of data, especially on high school graduation, is all public school data. So we were a little bit worried maybe this is reflecting transfers out of public to private schools and homeschooling, and so maybe it was misleading. But we also looked at that, and that wasn’t what was driving it either.

Then we started to think about, “Why might that be,” and outlined some theories, not all of which are testable, but some of them are. One of the biggest explanations is that standards were reduced. In the spring of 2020, high schools basically said, “Just show up and you’ll pass your classes.” You didn’t really have to do anything to pass I think in most places, so they just made it easier. And that’s what kept the graduation rate high and actually probably helped some students who would not have graduated otherwise.

Related to that is cheating. We’re considering all this to be part of the lowering of standards. Mostly here I’m referring to an extensive set of anecdotes from my own kids, and from other kids, that this was happening. But it became easier to graduate, and that’s why graduations increased.

Were graduation rates different for different subgroups of students?

Yes. And that was the other interesting part. Usually, with educational outcomes, we see that low-income students, students with disabilities, racial and ethnic minorities, have larger negative effects. And we don’t see that here. Actually, the students with disabilities, English language learners, African American students, all saw increases in that spring of 2020 and smaller declines in the spring of ‘21. You see the same general pattern with all those years, it’s just a little bit more pronounced with those subgroups.

What did you find related to college entry and this increased high school grad rate?

Part of what we were trying to figure out was whether that decline in college enrollment — which had been partially documented elsewhere from the National Student Clearinghouse in particular — whether part of it might have been due to a drop in the number of potential college-goers. The first part of the study says, “Well, that’s not what’s happening because high school graduation didn’t decline.” 

And then with college entry, we found declines of 16% in two-year colleges and 6% in four-year colleges. And the two-year sector results are driven almost entirely by public, two-year colleges. So the privates, and for-profits especially, were pretty stable in their enrollments.

And we think part of what was going on there — and this shows up in some of the regression analysis — is that those colleges were less likely to go remote. They stayed in-person, partly because they’re so tuition-dependent that that was the only way they could survive. Whereas the community colleges could more easily survive with the drop in enrollment and were also more likely to follow what the government rules were with social distancing and to be a little bit more conservative in those decisions.

And what are the implications of your findings for colleges?

The last thing we did in this study was to talk about kindergarten all the way through 16, all the way up through four-year college graduation and look at the patterns, combining what we found with what other studies had found. One of the interesting patterns here was that any entry into an educational institution dropped — so kindergarten dropped, 9th grade dropped, two-year college entry dropped. Of course, four-year college entry dropped. Those are the areas where you see the biggest drops relative to persistence or completion. 

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