There is a disconnect in our education system. Other countries are steadily pulling further ahead of us in terms of having an educated population. By the year 2025, it's estimated that 50 percent of all jobs in this country will require a college degree. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America and Germany are the only two OECD countries where the younger generation is actually less educated than the older generation.
Something has happened to our young people and our education system to produce this sad fact.
I introduced Senate Bill 221 in part after reading "Crossing the Finish Line," co-authored by Michael McPherson, a former president of Macalester College in St. Paul with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago.
"Crossing the Finish Line" addresses a problem in education that is especially chronic in Alaska: Many young Alaskans go to college, but they just don't finish. Something like 60 percent graduate, but 40 percent don't - which to me is unacceptable.
It's a complex question to figure out why this is happening, but it's generally believed that part of the issue stems from preparedness. Students arriving at college are often not ready to do college-level math and writing. They're then moved into remedial level courses that don't count toward a degree. The time and money spent on their remediation might thus become demoralizing, and statistics show that those who take remedial classes often don't complete a college degree.
It's not just enrolling in college that's the issue, but actually finishing. We have to address the issue of student retention. It seems the first two years are the most defining ones in terms of educational attainment. What happens during that time frame to affect student success?
If enrollment in and completion of some form of higher education is the goal, then we must clearly identify why our students are failing to perform and devise a means to help them succeed. There are several challenges that must be faced. We have the resources to improve the situation, and Senate Bill 221 calls for the stakeholders to assemble and devise a plan to do so.
This task force will serve to identify ways to strengthen the education pipeline, improve student preparation for college, decrease the need for remediation in college, improve access to financial aid, increase retention and graduation rates in postsecondary education, provide enhanced funding and governance for our education system, address data and tracking needs, and ultimately support economic development toward a better trained, better educated citizenry.
The task force would include the governor, representatives from the Senate and the House Education Committees, the Student Loan Corporation, the Alaska Department of Education & Early Development, representatives from vocational training institutions in the state, the president of the university, the president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, faculty from around the state specializing in remediation, a representative from the state school boards association, as well as school district superintendants, the National Education Association, and students representing both secondary and post-secondary perspectives.
The task force would go to work immediately after this year's legislative session identifying focus areas in remedial education, counseling and financial need. And frankly, the needs and conditions identified should be no big surprise.
The fiscal note for S.B. 221 is modest, costing about $14,000 for legislative travel. All other task force member organizations pay their own way to participate.
There are always going to be reasons for students to drop out of college. Life happens. Nor should every student necessarily go to college. For some it's just not their thing, which is fine.
However, I think we should make sure the reasons for underachievement are not due to a student's lack of preparedness for college study, a lack of career readiness to enter the workforce upon graduating from high school, or for financial hardship.
Sen. Gary Stevens is president of the Alaska State Senate, a Republican representing Kodiak, Homer, Seward and the Illiamna area, and a retired 25-year professor at the University of Alaska.
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