No adult left be­hind

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Ihave had the plea­sure of hand­ing diplo­mas to some un­usual peo­ple at com­mence­ment. Still, it was star­tling to see the child walk to­ward me. He was 9. He looked younger. He wasn’t ac­cept­ing the diploma for him­self, of course. It­was for his dad, on ac­tive duty in Iraq. He’d sent his son, liv­ing on a base in Ger­many, to get it for him.

“Con­grat­u­la­tions,” I said. He and his dad de­served it.

At Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land Uni­ver­sity Col­lege, our grad­u­ates are Amer­ica’s adult learn­ers. Al­most all­work full time. Half are par­ents. Their diplo­mas of­ten re­flect the­work, sac­ri­fice — and tri­umph— of an en­tire fam­ily.

These per­sonal achieve­ments, though, are the ex­cep­tion rather than the rule. They high­light a na­tional prob­lem. UMUC grad­u­ates of­ten be­gin study­ing at the “un­sung he­roes” of higher ed­u­ca­tion: Amer­ica’s com­mu­nity col­leges. But each year, thou­sands of com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dents who want to earn a bach­e­lor’s de­gree — par­tic­u­larly those from mod­est in­come ormi­nor­ity fam­i­lies— can­not con­tinue. Amer­ica’s four-year col­leges don’t ac­com­mo­date them.

It is not just a tragedy for them. It is a tragedy for our nation. Re­searchers es­ti­mate that baby-boomer re­tire­ments will soon leave our work­force 14-mil­lion shy of the num­ber of fouryear de­gree re­cip­i­ents we need.

What stands in the­way? First, cost. Stu­dents pay­ing about $2,500 a year for com­mu­nity col­lege tu­ition can­not al­ways af­ford the $7,000 av­er­age for pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties, much less the $26,000 av­er­age for pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions.

And there are other ob­sta­cles. Four-year col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties of­ten re­ject cred­its from trans­fer stu­dents. They sched­ule cour­ses at chal­leng­ing times for stu­dentswhowork. Some­times they can­not even pro­vide enough park­ing for peo­ple rush­ing from work to class.

When it comes to higher ed­u­ca­tion, we have made progress get­ting­more peo­ple to the start­ing blocks. Yet these bar­ri­ers keep too many from cross­ing the fin­ish line.

How­dowe change? On­cewe un­der­stand that 65 per­cent of adults in this coun­try do not have a col­lege de­gree, it be­comes ob­vi­ous that our tra­di­tional pub­lic col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties need to adapt. They­must­work­with­com­mu­nity col­leges to re­move ob­sta­cles and cre­ate path­ways for these stu­dents to earn de­grees that em­ploy­ers value. These part­ner­ships should fo­cus on three things.

First, com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dents need­more than cour­ses. They need a plan, worked out when they start, that iden­ti­fies the cour­ses they must take to qual­ify to trans­fer to a four-year in­sti­tu­tion. These plans­may in­clude credit for on-the job learn­ing. They may in­clude credit for more af­ford­able cour­ses taken else­where. But ev­ery credit these stu­dents earn­must count to­ward a four-year de­gree.

Sec­ond, com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dents need help pay­ing tu­ition­when they trans­fer to fouryear in­sti­tu­tions. Any stu­dent who main­tains an av­er­age above 3.0 should qual­ify for a schol­ar­ship. Al­most all schol­ar­ship stu­dents go on to earn a four-year de­gree. Per­haps com­pa­nies whose em­ploy­ees are work­ing for a four-year de­gree will con­trib­ute.

Third, many stu­dents need the flex­i­bil­ity of on­line cour­ses if they are go­ing to grad­u­ate while work­ing. Yes, cus­tom­ary face-to-face classes are valu­able to the uni­ver­sity ex­pe­ri­ence. But uni­ver­si­ties need tomix and­match a va­ri­ety of learn­ing ap­proaches so stu­dents can pick the ones that work best for them.

Peo­ple who say that tra­di­tional meth­ods work best should talk to Sarah English.

Talk about mo­ti­va­tion. Sarah earned 26 col­lege cred­itswhile her chil­dren­were small and re­ceived a de­gree from Mary­land’s Mont­gomery (Com­mu­nity) Col­lege. But would those cred­its ap­ply to­ward a four-year de­gree?

Af­ter re­search­ing her op­tions, Sarah came to UMUC. We ac­cepted all of her cred­its and awarded her a com­mu­nity col­lege trans­fer schol­ar­ship. Her em­ployer gave her tu­ition as­sis­tance.

“I got more than the schol­ar­ship,” she says now. “I was at school part-time and work full­time. I needed flex­i­bil­ity. I got that, too.”

Thou­sands of stu­dents are like Sarah. They want the ed­u­ca­tion that mod­ern technology makes pos­si­ble. They need the boost to their earn­ing power. And Amer­ica’s fu­ture de­pends on their suc­cess.

The Sarahs of the world do not need to change. We do. The goal of ev­ery uni­ver­sity must be to leave no mo­ti­vated adult be­hind.

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