The goal of any four year institution is to make sure that every student finishes their course of study in that amount of time. Universities have not only a moral obligation to do this (because students ought to be given opportunities in the workforce as soon as possible), but also an economic obligation (because the labor market benefits from highly-educated college graduates) and a financial obligation (because the universities themselves make less money if they can’t push their students out of the nest in four years). So, it’s somewhat alarming that only 41 percent of college students at four-year institutions manage to graduate in four years.
That number comes from an insightful New York Times article about the barriers that are preventing many of these students from graduating on time. I think that more needs to be done to ensure that all students have the opportunity to capitalize on their natural talents, and that it’s a disservice to them to put up barriers to graduation. I think that early intervention is key to doing this. Here are some things that I think teachers of early grades can do to help make sure kids not only set their sights on college, but are prepared to graduate in as little time as possible.
First, I think elementary school teachers should emphasize not only high school graduation, but also college attendance and graduation as eventual goals. Many students may not have this expectation reinforced by their family backgrounds, and for them it’s especially important to know that someone believes in them and wants them to graduate from an institution of higher learning. I wrote recently about a charter school that I visited that set expectations like this for their students, and I continue to believe that this is one of the most important things that elementary school teachers can be doing for their students.
Another tactic that I thing elementary school teachers should be using is encouraging kids to explore their interests at an early age. Many students spend more than four years at their universities because they change their course of study, or they transfer to a different institution because their previous institution has a weaker program in what they eventually discover that they’re interested in. Obviously, very young children don’t have to be taught the nuances of career planning, but I think that teaching kids to explore a variety of practical and interesting subjects will set them on the right path for knowing what they want to do with their lives.
One final thing that elementary school teachers should do, and are hopefully doing anyway, is teaching kids to value themselves and to believe in what they can do. If a kid doesn’t believe that they can graduate college in four years, they’re not going to be as likely to do that. But if they think they’re capable enough and bright enough to do that, I don’t think we’ll have as high incompletion rates as we do now.
All of these pieces of advice will make small differences, but small differences over time can really help solve this problem. If we want to believe that every child has equal opportunity, we need to know that every child has the capability to graduate from college in four years. Teachers at every level of education can contribute to this.