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The Big Con: How Serving Leadership Underprepared a Generation of College Students

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Ygnacio “Nash” Flores, Tracy Rickman & Don Mason
July 1, 2016

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Photo credit: Don Mason

The difference of educating millennials has long been part of the national debate as evidenced by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and it sibling legislation, Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. The issue with establishing high standards as a yardstick is that the means of preparation often fall short of developing the expected ends – which results in recurring “new and improved” national initiatives to address the nation’s educational shortcomings. These national, and state efforts, have lacked a true understanding of student value-centered pedagogy. Too often, the parochial interests of politicians and unions override a meaningful approach to preparing millennials for post-secondary education, especially community college.

While many educators stand under the banner of servant leadership, their actions align more with serving leadership. Their practices serve ulterior purposes and motivations rather than truly leading a generation to succeed through a viable educational system that creates learning. The result is a generation that exhibits a large portion of underprepared college students.

Regrettably, this population comes from those young adults that lacked the affluent impressions of self-absorption, wastefulness and greed of millennials such as the behavior demonstrated by Ethan Couch. At the center of this article are those underserved, underprivileged and low social economic status (SES) students that look to community colleges as their ticket to being millennials on the other side of town.

Though the majority of community college students enroll in their first year as “college students,” they find that they are not prepared for the rigors of college. This gap in educational leadership is hidden behind special budgets that have been called remedial education and developmental education. In 2004, The Broad Foundation released “Diploma to Nowhere. The report showed 43 percent of community college students and 29 percent of university students required remedial education at a cost of $2.3 to $2.8 billion.

The continuing cost of reeducating high school graduates in remedial subjects is reflected in the 2013 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, “New Federal Research Center May Enhance Current Understanding of Developmental Education,” that looks at more ways to spend funds to link high school and community college curriculum. The report highlights a lack of research as a “discovered” reason for the disconnect between a pathway from kindergarten to college. The finding is disingenuous in that after years of studies finding high school students are under prepared for college, this deficit in the public school system can be answered by a Center that will, like the root problem, be researched for answers.

The message on this chalkboard is not to criticize the college and university systems. It calls for inquiry to what is happening in schools, pre-K to 12. Another way of interpreting this dismal information is that for many millennials, the first two years of college is an extension of high school and in some cases junior high school courses in language arts and math. A sad fact of developmental education being an industry in itself, is that touted school successes of graduation rates and attainment of standards is that nearly half of the millennials stand in the shadow of unpreparedness. It is easy to see that national efforts to standardize educational outcomes are more cosmetic than permanent when juxtaposed to college placement tests.

Community colleges face many challenges in educating millennials. Their composition is disproportionally comprised of minorities. According to the American Association of Community Colleges’ 2016 Fact Sheet, the composition of community college students, nationally, is 14 percent African-Americans, 22 percent Hispanics and 6 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders.

Another unintended consequence of serving leadership is that community colleges have embraced developmental education as a means of generating full-time equivalents (FTES) as enrollment is diminishing due to a range of social factors. A better measure of success from the overall educational machine would be for colleges and universities to receive well-prepared students prepared to complete their two and four year degrees within the timeframe of their numerical degree identities. This would provide the workforce and economy with a strong foundation for national economic successes.

The reality of the current governance of the educational machine is that many developmental students quickly grow discouraged and leave college with feelings of low self-esteem and inadequacy. These outcomes keep alive the warnings of Ivan Illich’s 1971 seminal discourse on failing school systems—Deschooling Society—that said progressive education is not measured by the amount of funds spent on the educational machine. These practices point to the mismanagement of a machine that is unclear of its intended mission. Managers need to focus on the population it is charged with educating, not on the amount of funds spent in the name of educating.

It would be remiss if the role of parents were not included in the conversation. Education begins the moment a child is born. Relying on the public school system to provide all of the preparation for college is not only a misdirected dream, it is also unfair to their children.

In conclusion, the national effort over the past 20 years has resulted in a disservice. A generation of millennials have missed the benefits of value-centered educational preparation for the nation’s community colleges.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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