Today's New York Times article about widespread academic remediation at the City University of New York is in part an article about the failure of the city's high schools.
Community college completion rates are abysmal across the country. Half of all students drop-out in the first year, and only 25 percent earn their two-year degree within three-years. This is a major lost opportunity, given that a two-year associate's degree–especially one accompanied by an occupational license, such as in nursing–can be so valuable on the labor market: Nearly one-third of workers with occupational licenses earn more than the average recipient of a bachelor's degree.
Why are people dropping out of community colleges en masse? In part, it's the frustration of being academically under-prepared and thus being forced to pay tuition for credit-less remediation classes. But national surveys of community college drop-outs find that the most cited reasons for leaving school are work and family responsibilites. Sixty percent of community college students work more than 25 hours per week, and a quarter work 35 hours per week or more. Twenty percent are financially-independent single parents and another 20 percent are married with children.
As a society we are offering very few social supports that would make attending community college easier for young, single, poor parents, and so most of them drop out. "The community college illustrates better than any other level of the education system the predicament of providing educational equity in an inequitable society, without the social and economic policies to complement educational opportunities," write Norton Grubb and Martin Lazerson in The Education Gospel: The Economic Power of Schooling.
Since we aren't getting a national daycare system anytime soon, this data suggests we should provide young people with with academically rigorous, workforce-relevant educational opportunities way before they get to community college–preferably in middle school and high school, when they are less likely to be overwhelmed by the demands of adult life. I have an upcoming article in The Nation about two different models for helping high school students gain a foothold in the world of work: One is New York City's Aviation High School, whose graduates earn both a Regents diploma and a certificate in aircraft mechanics (entry level salary: $60,000 with benefits). The other is Tech Valley High School outside of Albany, where each student pursues a professional internship during the month of January, all while taking college-prep classes in subjects such as Chinese, calculus, and civics.
Students who see, early in high school, that education leads directly to better employment opportunities are more likely to prioritize further schooling, and also more likley to have the skills necessary to get higher-paying part-time jobs that allow them to finance their educations.