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Forced to Apply to College? Some Students Could Be

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CREDIT: Flickr / zackojones

Should high school students have to apply to college to graduate? That’s the question behind a proposal going before Washington, DC city officials that would require all public school students to take the SAT and apply to at least one university, trade or vocational school, or other postsecondary institution in order to graduate.

It’s a bold proposal and one that has sparked some controversy.

Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officer, told the Washington Post that the rote application requirement would have little effect without addressing the quality of students’ actual high school education.

He asked, to the Post: “What good does it do for them to require students to ritualistically apply to college?”

But former Campus Progress editor Kay Steiger argues that while it might not do any good, it probably won’t do any harm either. She writes: “The worst case scenario is they get rejected from the school and life continues as it otherwise might. Best case scenario, a student who otherwise never thought he or she would be able to go to college actually does.”

While perhaps a little too dismissive of the potentially negative effects—it’s possible that telling kids they have to apply to college without helping them along the way could make students feel inadequate if they are rejected—Steiger’s core point is an important one. For students who want to go to college but think it’s out of reach, the provision could open doors. If students are accepted, they can make use of Washington, DC’s Tuition Assistance Grant Program, which offers up to $10,000 for students to attend public universities anywhere in the country.

And those opportunities matter, perhaps more than ever. The gap between workers with and without college degrees is widening and has been particularly exacerbated by the economic downturn. Today, 8.7 percent of people with high school diplomas are unemployed, compared with only 4.1 percent of people with college degrees. And while it’s possible to get a job with just a GED, many professions that don’t require a bachelor’s—like nursing, computer support, and mechanics—do require some kind of postsecondary training.

The inevitable hand-wringing over paternalism seems a bit silly given the current state of affairs, in which teens’ lives are strictly structured and monitored up until the point when they turn 18, at which time they’re often cut loose altogether. Moreover, plenty of kids apply to college not because they’ve carefully considered the costs and benefits, but because their families and friends expect them to.

While this can be a source of pressure and stress, it keeps students from closing doors simply because they don’t feel like going through the sometimes-grueling application process or can’t imagine life after high school. Creating an institutionalized version of that social pressure might not work, but it could help expand opportunities for low-income students simply by showing them those opportunities exist.

While many high-achieving private and charter schools already have similar requirements, other governments are starting to explore similar programs. Oregon recently passed a similar bill requiring students to apply to college in order to graduate high school.

But it’s important that these programs don’t just allow lawmakers to adopt a “tough love” stance on education while doing little to actually expand opportunities for low-income students or those who wouldn’t succeed in traditional educational settings.

Postsecondary application mandates need to be paired with resources to support students in preparing for standardized tests and applying to schools: The college application process can be a daunting one, and even the savviest students often need help.

Applying to college can also be costly. Hopefully, DC officials have a plan for helping students with the fees they’re likely to incur. DC City Council Chair Kwame Brown has said the provision will require high schools to offer a seminar on applying to postsecondary institutions, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s a whiff of the last-minute-cram-session solution to this proposal—to make it more than just empty rhetoric, school systems need to start preparing students for higher education long before they hit senior year. In the meantime, though, it’s worth seeing what happens when school systems try to promote the concept that education doesn’t end with a diploma.

Alyssa Battistoni is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @alybatt.

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