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Column: Rigor in high school, success in college

The lifetime income of college graduates greatly exceeds that of high school graduates; in fact, the gap has never been wider, and it is growing. At the same time, a greater percentage of college costs are being shifted to students as university administrators raise tuition to offset cuts in state support. Meanwhile, both employers and professors express dismay over some students' poor ability to tackle complex subjects and to make coherent written and oral presentations.

In the discussion about how to get better educational results while controlling costs, one fact is often overlooked: Students would do better in college and pay less for their education if they arrived with more rigorous high school preparation, especially in essay writing and solving math word problems.

This preparation enables students to progress from passive to active learning, from routine derivative thinking to inventive thinking, from working with materials created by others to more actively creating their own work product.

When high schools offer intensive writing courses, students learn that advanced writing is a process requiring multiple revisions. In advanced writing, students develop the ability to learn from what they previously wrote and to build upon it. These skills are critical for the rigorous humanities majors that require a lot of writing and logic, such history and philosophy.

Similarly, math word problems require students to read the description of a fact situation, separate the germane from the irrelevant, develop a math model based on these facts solve the problem, and then write a short statement explaining their results. Just as essay writing on increasingly complex topics takes organization and communication skills to a much higher and innovative level, practice solving word problems of increasing complexity improves the student's working knowledge of mathematics and the college subjects that require math.

But, how does such preparation reduce college costs? In the course of doing better academically, properly prepared students save money because they can choose from a much wider selection of major options, enter a rigorous major earlier, select more advanced courses in that major, and graduate sooner. By graduating sooner, the prepared student can begin earning in the job market sooner, with better job prospects earned by their academic achievements. These students can justify borrowing for their education because, in doing so, they can avoid low-paying part-time jobs that add very little to their human capital, and they can devote more of their time to earning higher grades.

By contrast, those less prepared are more likely to perform poorly in class, requiring them to drop courses and take remedial instruction. They will avoid difficult majors and drift toward ersatz studies that allow them to skirt quantitative methods and extensive critical thinking. These students tend to spend more time in college, incurring more costs and end up less competitive in the job market after graduation.

Unfortunately, those who teach rigorous high school English composition and math courses are greatly discouraged. Instead of having the resources needed for such labor-intensive instruction, tight budgets frequently force them to emphasize workbook exercises that can be easily tested and machine-graded.

It is encouraging to see that the new Common Core State Standards initiative focuses on English and math. But will the resources be provided to do it right? If these standards simply become a "back to basics" initiative designed to lower costs and reduce taxes, it will be yet another step in the death spiral of American competitiveness.

William L. Holahan is emeritus professor of economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Charles O. Kroncke, retired dean of the College of Business at UW-M, also recently retired from USF. They are co-authors of "Economics for Voters." They wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Rigor in high school, success in college 09/27/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 9:07am]
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