OpEd: Sending kids off to college unprepared

By Amanda Riddle, Mike Fricano and Linda Bowen

imageFrom the moment kids walk through the kindergarten doors their schools are pushing them to aim for college, and with good reason. Even in the slow recovery from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, unemployment for college graduates was 4.2 percent in January 2012 compared to 8.4 percent for high school graduates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And by 2018 as we become a more tech- and information-based economy, nearly two-thirds of jobs will require at least some college education, according to a 2010 report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

Sadly, despite our increasing emphasis on the importance of college we’re failing to provide the proper conditions for students to get to college, let alone succeed once they’re there. Early last year, the California Legislative Analyst’s Officer of Higher Education noted in an issue brief: “The CSU currently admits many students who are unprepared for college-level writing and math.” In 2009, the number stood at 58 percent of freshmen. About 26 percent in 2010 were considered unprepared for college-level writing in the UC, while “almost all community college students have remediation needs.”

Last fall the Youth Media Los Angeles Collaborative, a consortium of advocates who engage and nurture young journalists, surveyed more than 1,800 high school and middle school students about how recent draconian budget cuts have harmed their ability to learn. From overcrowded classes of up to 50 students to not enough books and computers to dirty bathrooms, the answers revealed how much we’re sabotaging our country’s future.

Two-thirds of the survey respondents said that overcrowded classrooms make them feel like their teachers don’t have enough time to teach. Overcrowding takes away more than a teacher’s time.

Fifty-seven percent of students reported copying information from an overhead projector because there wasn’t even enough paper to make photocopies. Even though we’re heading into a more digital economy, 52 percent said that there aren’t enough computers. And 51 percent say students have to share textbooks.

When we asked about conditions at their schools, only 15 percent said their school was in good condition. Nearly two-thirds said that the bathrooms needed fixing and about half said there were graffiti-covered walls, faulty air conditioning/heating and that desks and classrooms needed repairs.

“Not all classrooms have air conditioning so in the summer it gets really hot,” one respondent answered. How can students be expected to focus their best when they’re dripping with sweat? And how much will students believe we genuinely care about their futures when we don’t care enough to pay to have the graffiti-tagged walls re-painted?

Not surprisingly, one in five students said that they’ve thought about leaving public school because of problems at their schools. Thirteen percent said budget cuts have affected their ability to get the classes they need to graduate. One wrote: “If you fail any classes you’re not able to retake it because classes are full.” Another said that he had to take Spanish 2 at Pierce College because his school no longer offered it. A third wrote: “Cutting summer school made it harder to catch up on the credits I need.”

Yet despite our failure to provide what these students need, nearly all of them said that they’re planning on attending college, with the majority preferring a four-year public university.

But, qualified students will find seeking higher education much more difficult in the coming years as California’s public colleges and universities grapple with significantly diminished funding even if the Governor’s tax initiative passes in November. In fact, the state has cut higher education general funding by $2.65 billion since the 2008-09 academic year. If the tax initiative fails, both the University of California and California State University systems are bracing for “ballot trigger reductions” of $200 million for 2012-13. For the California Community Colleges system, the budget picture as proposed by Gov. Brown is flat, with a predicted decline of $147 million that may be offset by property taxes from the elimination of redevelopment agencies.

Meanwhile, as California college admission applications have risen dramatically over the last three years, tuition, at least in the short term, is expected to surge – again and again – to “backfill” the budget reductions at the expense of higher costs for providing Cal Grants to financially needy students. Those who actually get in will undoubtedly face other major obstacles, including restricted enrollment targets limiting the number of classes they can take or in meeting the requirements for obtaining financial aid.

Officials expect important programs and resources, such as services to students with learning disabilities and mental health issues, could be sacrificed as well. At CSUN, student journalists in the YMLAC project who have been probing these issues for a special report in the Daily Sundial learned that while annual budgets for these services have remained static for several years at about $750,000, growing numbers of students with these needs will be arriving on California campuses in coming years.

California students have adopted the goals we’ve told them to set for themselves, but by annually cutting money for teachers, programs and resources and raising tuition we keep placing that aspiration further out of reach.

Amanda Riddle and Mike Fricano are the co-managing editors of the independent teen newspaper L.A. Youth. Linda Bowen is associate professor, California State University, Northridge Journalism Department. They are members of the Youth Media Los Angeles Collaborative.