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Losing the education war

Between the Lines



Practically every day, the world bombards us with endless batches of fresh, interesting statistics — from the economy to demographics, sports and everything in between.

It often reaches overload. Who really cares if the national unemployment rate is announced at 7 percent, the lowest in five years, when we still have so much trouble adding decent-paying jobs in Colorado Springs? And who gives a flip that two pro football teams scoring 36 points in the final two minutes of a game hadn't happened in 50 years? Like we're supposed to remember?

Amid the numbers, polls and reports coming from every direction, only rarely does a simple statistic stop us in our tracks. But that's what happened Thursday at a Colorado Springs Business Journal-sponsored luncheon featuring our city's most prominent leaders of higher education: UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak, Air Force Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson, Colorado College President Jill Tiefenthaler and Pikes Peak Community College President Lance Bolton.

Much of what they had to say was upbeat, such as Johnson talking about the academy's 20 research centers "including our own satellite that cadets monitor"; Shockley-Zalabak reporting that 42 percent of UCCS graduates were helped by financial aid (indicating they weren't from high-income families); Tiefenthaler saying that 40 percent of CC's students "are on almost a full ride" of aid; and Bolton describing the relationship that leads to more than 500 PPCC students a year transferring directly to UCCS.

But as the group took turns assessing their situations, and how they relate to the business community, one PowerPoint slide stood out:

For every 100 9th-graders in Colorado, 50 go to college; 22 earn a college degree.

Wait a minute. WHAT? Surely it's a mistake.

No. It's true, the leaders concurred. Of our state's high school freshmen, fewer than 1 in 4 will finish college. But many won't leave high school with a diploma. Some (as you might guess, more affluent) area districts might have better percentages, but others are faring worse. Makes it hard to brag about what's happening in Colorado's K-12 schools.

Bolton has more to share, and much of it drives home a similar point under a category he calls "underprepared students." He reports that of the 22,000 or so students enrolled at PPCC, as many as 64 percent discover in early testing that they need remediation in the basics (English, math, science, etc.) before being able to do actual college-level work.

Don't let that slip by, either. We're talking about high school graduates, in the thousands, not having the necessary foundation to keep up at a local community college.

"Actually, for that other 36 percent, we're as good as anywhere," Bolton says. "If they come to us and they don't need remediation, our success rates are actually very good."

Bolton's response for how to deal with it has been better remediation courses, with a new program on track to start in fall 2014. But he also can't avoid mentioning that more and more high school graduates are not equipped for college, which he sees as the direct result of K-12 education obsessing about teaching to and preparing for standardized tests.

"I think if people realized how bad these numbers really are, they'd probably be storming the state Capitol," Bolton says.

Nobody can say that the state has been paying too much attention to higher education and not enough to K-12. As Shockley-Zalabak showed in her presentation, "over the last decade we've had a 24 percent per student funding decline from the state." She also worries about the fact that "we no longer have any merit aid to keep Colorado kids in Colorado" (offering scholarships to in-state schools).

So, one might conclude, the best that most of today's ninth-graders in Colorado Springs can hope for is a full-time job in fast food?

"No," Bolton says flatly. "Not even that much."


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