Years ago, it took a high school diploma to get a good job. Today, some employers require a college degree. The assumption is today’s jobs require a higher level of communication and math skills and an additional two years (associate’s degree) or four years of advanced study is now needed.
But there is another meaning to this phrase: that the college degree is eroding in academic rigor and might represent little more knowledge and skill than the high school diploma of the last century.
There has been an explosion in high school course work awarded college credit. When dual credit was first established, the wording of the legislation made it clear it was for a few exceptional high school students — only juniors or seniors — who could benefit from taking accelerated course work. The image was of a straight-A high school student trekking up the street to sit among college students at the local college. School administrators had to attest the student was exceptional — a “Doogie Howser” for those who remember the television series about the youngster who attends medical school.
However, the Kansas concurrent enrollment system soon was expanded to include students who had just completed their freshman year of high school. School superintendents added the number of students taking courses for college credit to their bragging inventory. Having a large number of students graduate high school with one or even two full years of college credits is now common. It has become a false indicator of school quality.
One large Kansas district begins students on a pathway to college preparation beginning at age 4. Ninety percent of students in this non-affluent district are admitted to college, and some have 24 to 30 college credit hours finished at high school graduation. Under the cheerleading of moving from “encourage” to “require,” their College Plus program now mandates college course work for high school students. Everyone is now a “Doogie Howser.”
With the annual increases in college tuition, those parents who could afford it saw the savings in paying college tuition for a high school class now, to count as college credit later.
Accelerating this trend was a change in public university funding. Formerly, Kansas regents universities were funded within a corridor. As long as enrollment stayed within this corridor, the funding from the state remained stable. The Kansas Board of Regents switched to a system where each school essentially kept its tuition. And the race for students and tuition from dual credit courses was on.
What credentials do these secondary teachers need? In 2005, KBOR passed a bachelors-with-24-hours-in-field-taught requirement. But the wording allowed community and technical colleges to do the same. Kansas found itself in the strange position of allowing teachers to teach college credit courses when they did not have enough credits to teach the course in high school. (Most Kansas secondary teachers must have more than 24 hours-in-field.) For 10 years, these underqualified teachers who lack a master’s degree, at both high schools and community and technical colleges in Kansas, have generated large numbers of college credit course work for high school students.
Into this academic Wild West rides the Higher Learning Commission. The HLC’s Assumed Practices for faculty roles and qualifications requires teachers of college credit courses to have the master’s degree and 18 graduate hours in the field being taught. Immediately, Kansas community and technical colleges began advertising for the master’s criteria. But as soon as the HLC policy clarification indicated it would go into effect for Fall 2017, many re-advertised at the bachelors-with-24 level.
While there are some well-qualified high school teachers teaching a college level course, the vast majority of current high school dual-credit teachers lack the master’s degree/18-graduate-hours-in-field-qualification.
Kansas has been issuing college credits for more than a decade for courses taught by underqualified teachers. And Kansas officials have asked HLC for more time, another five years, to implement the qualifications requirement.
Meanwhile, for many Kansas students, a four-year bachelor’s degree already has become only three or even two years of genuine college course work. Indeed, the college degree might become a high school diploma.
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences
at Emporia State University.