America’s community colleges are viewed by many—ourselves included—as a not-so-secret weapon in the nation’s competitiveness arsenal. They are the key to a good life for many of our nation’s youth and to the ability of America to remain competitive in the emerging global economy.
So we were very surprised at the findings of a new report by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). Research shows that the instructors in many of our community colleges expect very little from their first-year students—and a large fraction of those entering these institutions cannot meet even those low standards.
What NCEE found was eye-opening and disturbing. First, the texts used in the first-year courses in most community colleges are written at the 11th or 12th grade levels of reading ability, but because incoming high school graduates are apparently unable to comprehend what they are reading, their instructors feel compelled to prepare PowerPoints and other similar aides to get across the main points in the text. When NCEE looked at the tests given to first-year college students, they discovered that the students are not tested on anything but the most basic material in the introductory texts for the occupations for which these students are training.
Too many first-year community college programs, it seems, do not ask their students to do very much writing, and the writing they are asked to do is very basic. Rarely, if ever, are they asked to argue a point and marshal evidence that would support that point.
The math findings were even more surprising—very little math was required of first-year community college students, and what was required was mostly middle school math. Yet it turns out a large portion of our high school graduates have a very shaky command of the math they need to know by the end of middle school to be prepared to pursue vocations. Just as ironically, the report concludes that most of the math taught in our high schools—the sequence that begins with Algebra II and ends with basic calculus—is not needed to succeed in most community college programs and is only relevant for the less than 5 percent of American workers who use calculus in their jobs.
Based on this report and other studies it seems safe to conclude that a large fraction of our community college students leave their programs without the skills and knowledge they will need to be successful in the careers for which they are training. It is even safer to conclude that they will not have the more sophisticated kinds of knowledge and skills they will need in the future as more routine work is automated, low-skill work continues to go offshore and millions of young people in China and India with higher skills enter the workforce demanding less pay.
This could become a tragedy for many American community college students, but an even greater tragedy for the United States. Average real wages for our workers have been falling for 20 years. They will continue to fall if this country cannot offer superior skills at competitive wages. Global firms can source their labor abroad, if necessary, to meet their needs. But American workers will not get those jobs if they cannot compete academically. What NCEE has discovered will lead ineluctably to a continued decline in the American standard of living if the basic standard of many of our community colleges cannot be raised.
Worse yet, the study shows that a large fraction of graduating high school seniors cannot meet the current low standards of most community colleges. Raising the standards of our community colleges without first greatly improving the skills of high school graduates will only increase failure rates in college.
However, our schools cannot do the job themselves. The reason that the schools are not able to teach their students to do middle school mathematics is because too many of their teachers themselves do not understand middle school mathematics and do not have the skills to teach it. But the education faculties of our universities do not teach mathematics—faculties of arts and sciences teach mathematics, and we need their help to adequately prepare our future teaching workforce. As a result, they too have some soul-searching to do. We must also provide the incentives for those who are qualified in math and science to become, and continue to be, teachers.
Much depends on whether the United States takes this report seriously and does what is needed to meet the challenges it poses.
Norman Augustine is the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin. Marc Tucker is the president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank.