The first Toolbox provided the most powerful argument by far for getting more high school students into challenging courses, my favorite reporting topic. Using data from a study of 8,700 young Americans, it showed that students whose high schools had given them an intense academic experience — such as a heavy load of English courses or advanced math or Advanced Placement — were more likely to graduate from college. It has been frequently cited by high school principals, college admissions directors and anyone else who cared about giving more choices in life to more students, particularly those from low-income and minority families.
The new Toolbox is 193 pages [pdf] of dense statistics, obscure footnotes and a number of insightful and surprising assessments of the intricacies of getting a college degree in America. It confirms the lessons of the old Toolbox using a study of 8,900 students who were in 12th grade in 1992, 10 years after the first group. But it goes much further, prying open the American higher education system and revealing the choices that are most likely to get the least promising students a bachelor’s degree.
Toward the end of the report, Adelman offers seven tips. I call them the “College Completion Cliff Notes.” They are vintage Adelman, very un-government-report-like, so I will finish by just quoting them in full:
“1. Just because you say you will continue your education after high school and earn a college credential doesn’t make it happen. Wishing doesn’t do it; preparation does! So . . .
“2. Take the challenging course work in high school, and don’t let anyone scare you away from it. Funny thing about it, but you learn what you study, so if you take up these challenges, your test scores will inevitably be better (if you are worried about that). If you cannot find the challenge in the school’s offerings, point out where it is available on-line, and see if you can get it that way. There are very respectable Web sites offering full courses in precalculus, introductory physics, humanities, music theory, and computer programming, for example.
“3. Read like crazy! Expand your language space! Language is power! You will have a lot less trouble in understanding math problems, biology textbooks, or historical documents you locate on the Web. Chances are you won’t be wasting precious credit hours on remedial courses in higher education.
“4. If you don’t see it now, you will see it in higher education: The world has gone quantitative: business (obviously), geography, criminal justice, history, allied health fields — a full range of disciplines and job tasks tells you why math requirements are not just some abstract school exercise. So come out of high school with more than Algebra 2, making sure to include math in your senior year course work, and when you enter higher education, put at least one college-level math course under your belt in the first year — no matter what your eventual major.
“5. When you start to think seriously about postsecondary options, log on to college and community college Web sites and look not so much for what they tell you of how wonderful life is at Old Siwash, but what they show you of the kinds of assignments and examination questions given in major gateway courses you will probably take. If you do not see these indications of what to expect, push! Ask the schools for it! These assignments and questions are better than SAT or ACT preparation manuals in terms of what you need to complete degrees.
“6. See if your nearest community college has a dual-enrollment agreement with your school system, allowing you to take significant general education or introductory occupational courses for credit while you are still in high school. Use a summer term or part of your senior year to take advantage, and aim to enter higher education with at least six credits earned this way — preferably more.
“7. You are ultimately responsible for success in education. You are the principal actor. The power is yours. Seize the day — or lose it!”