I am a proud product of the Baltimore City public school system. My high school years at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute prepared me exceptionally well for the rigorous academic studies that led to a career in medicine, health policy and economics, and now higher education.
Unfortunately, my education in Baltimore during the 1970s contrasts sharply with the experience of many urban students across America who are mired in underperforming K-12 school systems that poorly prepare them for higher education and the world of opportunities beyond. That fact is especially clear to me now, as I complete my second year as a college president.
We have no way to know how many students are slipping through our net. Because No Child Left Behind legislation allows each state to define school underperformance, we have no consistent, nationwide basis for counting the number of students trapped in bad schools. A promising child in a bad school is essentially lost from view — and almost impossible for colleges to recruit.
So where did the money go? When operating in disadvantaged communities, college admissions programs often use financial aid and other recruitment tools to “skim” candidates from the best public and private schools, such as Poly, City College and Gilman in Baltimore. This approach may be effective for improving campus diversity — an important goal — but it is largely irrelevant to retrieving promising students from underperforming or dysfunctional K-12 schools.
The task is not impossible, however. Among the many possible approaches, one of the most promising may be academic redshirting, an idea referenced by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in his Jan. 11 speech to the 2012 NCAA convention. “Redshirting” refers to the practice of giving college athletes a fifth year over which to spread their undergraduate education, helping them to increase their size and strength and making them more competitive.
Could we provide promising scholars with an extra, “redshirt” year to maximize their academic strengths and become more intellectually competitive? Following are three among the many possible options for implementing this idea:
•The prep school model. Many private secondary schools already offer one-year postgraduate programs to help students address their academic weaknesses and build up Advanced Placement credits and grades before going to college. These programs are extraordinarily expensive and accessible only to students from the wealthiest families. But by pooling our resources and skills, selective colleges and universities could create a national network of accessible, prep school-based programs that would educate a meaningful number of promising students from underserved communities.
•The academy model. Early in our nation’s history, America had no comprehensive system of universal secondary education. Instead, many colleges operated their own secondary academies to prepare students for the rigors of higher education. At Grinnell College, where I serve as president, the Grinnell Academy educated generations of boys and girls in Latin, Greek, English, ancient history, mathematics, physiology and mental science. While it might be difficult for most colleges to replicate this model today, we could jointly establish preparatory academies for disadvantaged students. In addition to underwriting these programs, we should commit to admitting graduates and supporting them with financial aid.
•The community college model. Collaborations between four-year institutions and community colleges, such as the Frances Perkins Program at Mount Holyoke College and the efforts of the Des Moines Area Community College, already help students earn credits toward their bachelor’s degree. A redshirt partnership would not count toward college but would offer students an intensive year to overcome gaps in knowledge and skills, preparing them for success at a four-year institution. Again, pooling resources on a national scale would enable us to underwrite a sizable number of such ventures and educate a meaningful number of students.
We need to answer many questions before we can implement academic redshirting on a nationwide scale: What constitutes an underperforming school? How do we identify the most promising students in the absence of meaningful grading standards or test scores? Do we need to continue supporting redshirting graduates beyond their preparatory year?
But these questions should not deter us from experimentation. As leaders, we need to embrace our responsibility for developing all promising students, even those from the poorest-performing K-12 systems. Such commitment, followed up with bold action, could help an entire generation of bright, young people overcome academic deficiencies and financial barriers, access the lifelong advantages of a world-class higher education, and contribute to societal leadership in incalculable ways.