Recently, the Indiana Senate voted to offer an “early graduation scholarship” for each high schooler who graduated “before grade 12” and went on to college. The idea behind this is obviously to decrease the amount of money the state has to pay each year for secondary education by funneling the students out of public schools and dumping them, orphan-like, on a college doorstep.
It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to realize this plan’s Euripidian flaw. We don’t even need to get into the logistical problems of starting college in the spring semester (which will either throw students off required sequences, or cause colleges to adjust two-term introductory sequences). These high school students will have a half-year less of math, of English, of writing, of foreign languages, etc. This is learning that will have to occur at some point, and even in my short tenure as a college professor I’ve found that most of my students are already woefully unprepared for higher level thinking and writing. There’s no way that having new students with up to a year's less knowledge will help the problem.
These students will also have that much less physical, emotional, and social development. Most 18 and 19 year olds aren’t prepared for the non-academic challenges of college life, so how can we possibly expect those who are even younger to cope? The disparities between freshmen and seniors is already wide enough (since brains take years to develop, as do social skills), and adding 17 year olds to the mix can only exacerbate existing problems, while creating new ones.
The final problems with this plan are two-fold. Indiana’s law essentially guarantees that everyone who wants to be competitive for jobs, etc., will have to go to college. Having a college degree used to mean something (or so I’ve always been told), but as it becomes the new standard, it starts to mean as much to the job market as a high school diploma: it only matters if you don’t have one. Moreover, if the state saves money by getting kids out of high school and into colleges earlier… yes, the short-sightedness of this plan rapidly becomes apparent. The state might save money for a few years on secondary education costs, but then will have to put that money into colleges and universities.
Trying to save money and balance a budget by cutting education is a classic “nose to spite the face” situation. It might work well in the short term, but it’s not a viable long-term solution. If we want a workforce that can’t compete, a country whose test scores can’t impress, and citizens who can’t think well enough to realize a stupid idea when they see one, slashing education is the way to go. But if we want smart, articulate, well-spoken individuals who are intellectually flexible, rational, and capable of understanding not just 21st century problems but 22nd problems, education is the only viable long-term solution.