Fast Track to College Act would lead nation closer to goals Obama set forth

Education has long been the foundation of our country. Through historic education investments in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama has demonstrated his commitment to education. And by putting challenges such as making college more affordable and reforming our nation’s high schools at the top of his agenda, President Obama has made clear that the key to keeping our nation competitive is a high-quality education for everyone.

 In his address to Congress earlier this year, the president asked “every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training” and set a goal that “by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” By setting these ambitious goals, the president recognized that a postsecondary education is integral both to individuals’ future success and our nation’s collective strength.

The Fast Track to College Act, which I introduced in March with Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), will help us make great progress toward those goals. The bill, H.R. 1578, establishes new early college high schools and other dual-enrollment programs, and provides support to existing programs that already are achieving results. These programs enable students, especially those underrepresented in postsecondary education, to earn an associate’s degree or up to two years of transferable college credits at no cost to their families, while still in high school. These programs also reduce dropout rates, keep students engaged and provide a seamless transition to college.

The need for dual enrollment to help students succeed has never been greater. The United States has one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation — nearly half of African-American students and 40 percent of Latino students attend high schools where the majority of students do not graduate. In addition, the cost of attending a public college has almost tripled in recent decades. Tuition has skyrocketed at a rate nearly 10 times the rate of increase of the average family’s income. Because of this, and the fact that many students enter college in need of remedial coursework, almost half of the students who begin college do not complete their degree.

In today’s global economy, a college degree is what a high school diploma used to be — an indispensable part of a student’s ability to succeed. In fact, the top 10 fastest-growing jobs in America require at least a bachelor’s degree. If we do not make every effort to enable all students to reach their highest academic potential, we will have failed our moral responsibility and jeopardized our future as a nation.

As the president recently discussed, education goes hand in hand with economic development and national security. There are many examples of this in our history — Land-Grant colleges, the growth of universal public education, the GI Bill of Rights and investment in math and science, both after Sputnik and given today’s focus.

By exposing more students to college-level work early on, the Fast Track to College Act will better prepare students for a postsecondary education, motivate them to complete a degree and save them and their families time and money in the process. These innovative schools combine the academic and social supports that students need to be successful with a rigorous curriculum that challenges students to do their best. Learning takes place in small, personalized environments where the high school and college experiences are aligned.

All of these factors make dual enrollment programs well suited to engage at-risk students, such as low-income youth, first-generation college-goers, students with disabilities, English-language learners, students of color and other young people underrepresented in higher education. These programs also provide an on-ramp for students who previously dropped out to return to school and complete their education.

In my home state of Michigan, I have seen firsthand the success of dual enrollment programs. In 2007, Gov. Jennifer Granholm funded the opening of six early college high schools, including the Genesee Early College in my district. Genesee Early College is a partnership of the Genesee Intermediate School District, the University of Michigan-Flint and local healthcare systems that prepares students for careers in the health fields. Genesee Intermediate is also a partner with Mott Community College in the Mott Middle/Early College. Mott Middle/Early College has been enabling at-risk students to earn their associate’s degree since 1991.

It is important to set high expectations for our students and provide them with the support they need to reach those expectations. The Fast Track to College Act does just that. By helping students graduate from high school and giving them a jumpstart on college, we are not only preparing individuals for future success but also making our country more competitive on the global stage.

Kildee is the chairman of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary