A K-14 education system makes more sense — and may boost college enrollment

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Ever since President Biden announced that he would push Congress to provide two years of free tuition to community colleges and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), I’ve read many testimonials from people who have greatly benefitted from attending these institutions. One woman went so far to say: “When I was 18 years old, community college saved my life.” 

But while we often view community college as our most affordable higher education offering, many Americans remain hard-pressed to afford it. That reality, and the fact that these institutions improve millions of lives, explain why my organization — the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) — wholeheartedly supports the president’s proposals. 

NACAC represents more than 23,000 admission and counseling professionals who are committed to postsecondary access and success. As we outline in our organizational goals, providing students with a strong incentive to attend college and attain degrees will improve their prospects for a more secure future, including access to better, higher-paying jobs. These individual benefits can become societal benefits through lower poverty rates, increased tax revenues and a reduced need for social support programs. Research shows that those with bachelor’s and associate’s degrees also tend to be more involved in civic and community activities than those with only a high school degree. 

Coming out of the pandemic, the Biden plan is also timely. Because of the pandemic’s massive financial hit, college applications have decreased dramatically, particularly from lower-income students. Biden’s proposal undoubtedly would help reverse that trend, and NACAC urges lawmakers to support it. The proposed investments in community colleges, HBCUs, Pell grants, low-wealth students, DACA students and Dreamers will expand educational and economic opportunity for all who seek it. If representatives in Washington have any doubts about the transformative power of a community college or HBCU education, I urge them to visit any of these institutions and talk with students about what they have gained.

The Biden plan is exciting for another reason: It’s time we fundamentally change how we think about the education necessary to thrive in the 21st century. The K-12 education we take as a given was built for agrarian and industrial eras. Making K-14 the norm is imperative for our students — and our country — to compete in an increasingly interconnected, culturally integrated, and technology-driven global economy. The Biden plan can be a critical step toward adapting the educational system for today’s world.

Next, we must simplify the college admission process. Across K-12, students move through a system built to allow students smooth transitions from elementary grades through high school. After that, though, we make the next step far more difficult to navigate, especially for first-generation and low-wealth families who are learning as they go, may lack access to school counselors and college advising, and can’t afford the support of the college- and career-prep industry. 

We must make applying to college as easy as possible. Recent changes to the FAFSA, the federal financial aid form, will eliminate two-thirds of its questions — and there is no reason college admission can’t be significantly simplified, too. For example, why isn’t there a national database that allows students to match their interests with a college’s offerings? If we can make the shift to thinking of the essential education as K-14, the prospects for partnership and smoothing the transition to college will become apparent. 

Toward that end, it’s time to double down on initiatives among four-year colleges and universities that ease the transfer of community college credits, and from two- to four-year colleges. Giving America’s vast talent pool clear pathways to college will expand opportunity, help meet the challenge of severe enrollment declines as the college-bound population hits a cliff later this decade, and bring onto campuses the maturity and work ethic for which community college graduates are known — benefiting individuals, campuses and society alike.  

Those who will oppose the Biden plan have made their predictable objections that the plan is too expensive, particularly as “social spending.” But that framework is all wrong — this is spending on human talent, America’s competitiveness, and a better American future. The evidence is all around us that our country needs more skills, more innovation, more opportunity — all of which require us to invest in people. Clearing the way for students to experience a K-14 education as the norm will repay 21st-century America and its talent many times over.

David Hawkins is the chief education and policy officer for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Tags Education Historically black colleges and universities Joe Biden University and college admissions

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