Five Questions with GtCNN: Andy Dorsey

Monday, February 20, 2017


What systematic reforms are needed to ensure all students receive the individual supports they need to complete high school ready for postsecondary education or training?



That’s a good question with no easy answers. The good news is that high school graduation rates nationally have been steadily increasing, so many districts are clearly taking positive steps.


I’d like to see a renewed focus on career-technical education and apprenticeships that connect students with careers earlier. For some students, more practical, hands-on learning, especially in a work setting, would be much more meaningful than classroom time. I was lucky enough to travel to Switzerland last year with Colorado Governor Hickenlooper and a delegation of business leaders. We saw more than 20 apprenticeship sites and learned how the Swiss have used apprenticeships to provide support and career pathways to students at all levels of academic achievement.


I also think that project-based learning has a lot of possibilities to engage students. Northglenn High School (Adams 12 School District) in Colorado has had tremendous success restructuring to a STEM academy built on project-based curriculum. Graduation and post-secondary success rates have changed measurably by that shift in focus.


Northglenn is one of two high schools (Skyline High in Longmont, St. Vrain School District is the other) where Front Range is a partner in a PTECH (Pathways in Technology Earth College High School) high school. This is a promising model, as it incorporates a corporate partner who can help make education relevant. IBM is our partner in Longmont, and Level III Communication is our partner in Northglenn. Early findings are that the program, which was begun by IBM, is helping potentially disconnected youth graduate with meaningful credentials.


We can also do a better job aligning high school and college curriculum and providing more focused concurrent enrollment pathways. Right now concurrent enrollment offerings are often too haphazard and uncoordinated with students’ career goals.


I am encouraged that Front Range partners with several districts that have enhanced their focus on CTE and are considering apprenticeships and concurrent enrollment opportunities.


What is the most effective way for higher education and K-12 to work together to support the success of disconnected youth?



Programs like Gateway to College are one of the best ways; they have a proven track record and provide youth a path to a college credential. But more generally, we need to make school relevant for disconnected youth, we need to provide different learning settings and environments (since many were not successful in comprehensive high schools and are not likely to fit in with younger students), and we need to recognize that these students often need more intensive and perhaps intrusive support.



What is the value of dual enrollment for young people and for their communities?



Dual enrollment provides many benefits to students: early exposure to college in a supportive environment, reduced time to college graduation, and decreased cost of a college degree. For some students, dual enrollment is an opportunity to discover that they actually can master college material, and it can inspire them to attend college when they might not otherwise do so. For others, it helps them stay engaged in high school by giving them challenge and purpose. And for others, it is the only way they can afford a college degree.



College access has been receiving considerable attention in recent years. What are the biggest hurdles that remain in this area?



The data on access is striking – young people from the top income quintile are at least 10 times more likely to earn a college degree than those from the bottom income quintile. Part of the difference is college going rates, but a big part is college success rates. Higher income students succeed at much higher rates, more than double the rates even controlling for SAT scores. Probably the biggest hurdle is the lack of appropriate support services - social, financial, and academic - for low-income students. We are increasingly learning that opening the doors for access, as community colleges have done for years, is not enough. Some of the national work on guided pathways offers promise for how to address some of these barriers.



What advice would you give to civic and state leaders who want to take more of a role in addressing high school graduation and college completion rates?



I would suggest they study successful programs nationally; there are several good models in Colorado alone. In particular, I think they should visit Gateway to College programs! But, more generally, I think we also need to talk more about completion to what end? Leaders need to focus on how the world of work is changing and whether our programs are really giving students the skills they need to succeed. Just getting a high school diploma by cranking out some work in an online setting might earn a student their credential, but may not prepare them for the accelerating pace of change in the work world. The same is true of college completion efforts. We need to do a better job of matching student interests to careers, and in providing them information about how they can match their talents and interests to the world of work. I am not sure our goal should be to produce more psychology majors (not to pick on psychology, as I used to teach psychology) who haven’t thought about the applications of their degrees.


Two other thoughts. First, more completion will take at least some additional resources if the completions are to be meaningful. We can certainly get better at using the resources we have, but the college completion programs that are the most successful provide higher touch (and thus more costly) interactions with students. Second, there are a whole host of policy issues that need to get addressed in some states. Innovative programs sometimes can’t operate within traditional models. We may need to think differently.





Andy Dorsey is president of Front Range Community College in Colorado, and a member of the GtCNN Board of Directors.



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