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The Cheap Way Out

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Students could do better—and taxpayers could save money—if we rewarded those who finish high school in three years with community college scholarships.

I have found a simple way to reduce the cost of high school, while simultaneously making college more affordable, especially for the poor and minorities.

Summarized in a report called “Free College for High School Students, the study suggests that any high school student who finishes his or her graduation requirements in three years be granted a full scholarship to a community college of the student’s choice.

While the potential benefit to the student of such a policy is obvious, what is surprising is the financial benefit to taxpayers. In most states, students graduate high school, not because they have attended public school for a certain number of years, but because they have met minimum academic requirements. This means that pupils willing to forsake electives can earn a high school diploma by the end of the junior year.

What makes this fact so valuable to taxpayers is that, in most states, the two year tuition at a community college is actually less than the cost of the senior year of high school. In my home state of Connecticut, for example, the per pupil cost for the fourth year of high school ranges from a low of $7,911 in Bridgeport to more than $16,000, in affluent Weston, while a full scholarship to any of the Nutmeg State’s twelve community colleges is only $5,000.

In other words, school districts willing to “pay” students to graduate high school in three years with a two-year community college scholarship are actually in the position to rebate money to property tax payers or to accumulate savings for some other worthy purpose.

In most states, the two year tuition at a community college is actually less than the cost of the senior year of high school.
The non-financial value of encouraging mature students to complete high school earlier has actually been recognized for many years. Leon Botstein, the distinguished president of Bard College, has long argued that most American students are kept in public schools far too long, with consequences that include boredom, social deviance, and underachievement.

“The weakest part of America’s educational system is located at the juncture between adolescence and schooling,” Botstein writes in his book Jefferson’s Children.  “For all income classes, races, and regions, the … years from ages twelve and thirteen to seventeen and eighteen mark a time of trouble …. The traditional high school is an out-of-date strategy and system. In terms of its curriculum, it remains a useless middle ground that helps neither fast nor slow learners.”

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates echoed similar sentiments in an impassioned speech in February of 2005.   Using words like “appalled” and “ashamed,” he argued that, not only does high school provide poor and minority students with an inferior education, but the system as a whole is “obsolete,” harming all students, even the privileged.

Now it is clear that allowing willing students to accelerate the completion of their course requirements has a financial as well as a social and academic payoff. And while it is true that most of the savings will come from reduced personnel costs, such reductions can be implemented over time through attrition, not from layoffs.

Furthermore, students who wish to complete their senior year of high school for some non-academic reason, such as playing on a district sports team, could still benefit in states like Minnesota that permit high school students to get academic credit for college courses. They could simply treat their freshman year of community college as the fourth year of high school and, upon graduation, go straight to the second year of community college.

The task of educating the next generation is essential to the well-being of our communities, our state and our nation. But it should not be allowed to continue draining the financial resources of both motivated students and hard-pressed taxpayers, when it is clear that a better alternative exists.


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