From high school to higher education

Returning to education
Kurt Duren waits to load a truck outside the Target Center in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

More than one-third of Minnesota high school graduates require at least one remedial course when they enter college. Almost 75 percent of Minnesota students who take the ACT entrance exam are not college-ready in all four key subject areas.


Kurt Duren is one of those students for whom high schools and higher education don't match up seamlessly. He once dreamed of flying military jets. But he couldn't master mathematics. That, and a troubled home life, helped derail his high school education 16 years ago.

Duren readily admits he squandered his educational opportunity. He dropped out, but passed his GED.

OBS Kurt
Kurt Duren says he's returning to college to get his degree partly to set a good example for his son.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Now he works three jobs, one of which is hefting and transporting equipment for the Minnesota Twins and other professional sports teams back and forth to the airport and other places. He doesn't have health insurance.

In March, while loading heavy bags for the Miami Heat basketball team into a truck near the Target Center in Minneapolis, Duren talked about creating a more purposeful life for himself.

"Teaching English overseas. Soaking up multiple cultures and meeting interesting people from around the world," Duren says.

Duren's determination drove him to restart his education two years ago. Now in his 30s with a wife and a son, he says he has the maturity and drive to see it through to get his degree in communications. It's something he hopes to pass on to his son.

"I'm not in school just for me. I'm in it for him, too," says Duren. "I figure he's able to see dad going to school and working. I believe I'm setting a really good example."

It's not an easy journey, for Duren or the U of M. To pursue his degree, he needs a math tutor, on-campus day care and understanding professors to piece together each day of classes.

Duren is part of a program that offers support along with remedial courses, special class arrangements and counseling to students who need a boost. About 7 percent of U of M students need some kind of remediation.


Higher education officials celebrate the fact that Minnesota earned the highest ACT scores among its peer states for the past two years.

More focus on the future
Kent Pekel at the University of Minnesota would like to see high schools look two years past graduation.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

At the same time, college educators see a need to connect with the Kurt Durens of the world earlier, so more students don't lose momentum in high school and have to circle back years later. That's a luxury universities and the state's economy can no longer afford.

One of the more recent ideas comes from the University of Minnesota's Consortium for Post Secondary Success.

The project is less than a year old. Director Kent Pekel, a former high school teacher himself, says high schools were not originally intended to feed students into college. They were more a way to prepare teens for the working world.

Now, as high schools evolve, Pekel says merely offering tougher courses and setting higher standards won't adequately reform them.

"You have math, you have science, you have tests. You can measure those things, which may or may not actually capture how well the student knows it," Pekel says. "But talk to almost any higher ed admissions person and they're looking for the soft stuff. They're looking for motivation, passion, direction."

Most high school teachers think state education standards prepare students well. At the same time, two-thirds of college instructors say state standards prepare students poorly.

Shortly after Gov. Pawlenty declared that high schools are obsolete, Pekel organized a meeting with high school principals. The group concluded the current high school structure is clearly working for a large proportion of students. But the relationship between the two levels of education may be outdated.

Minnesota is behind many other states when it comes to students completing upper level math courses. And while Minnesota leads the nation in high school graduation rates, less than half the state's African-American students complete high school on time.

Pekel's group suggests high schools refocus their mission to send every student to higher education -- whether it's for a four-year or advanced degree, a two-year certificate or completion of trade school.

"I think we need to be really cautious. For instance, when the governor says students are academically loitering, it sort of implies that someone is letting them loiter. I don't think our teachers and our administrators are letting them loiter," says Pekel.

"But I do think we can work with those teachers and administrators to find a dramatically different way to get those kids in motion. And I think that motion has to be toward higher education," he says.

Pekel's group is one of dozens around the state working to bridge the gap between high school and college. It may prove to be a difficult task.


A survey by ACT researchers of more than 6,000 educators in the U.S. shows most high school teachers think state education standards prepare students well. At the same time, two-thirds of college instructors say state standards prepare students poorly.

The report concludes that high school teachers teach toward a broad knowledge of many subjects, while college instructors expect a deeper understanding of a few key disciplines.

Robert Bruininks
University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks told the Rochester Higher Education Development Committee he intends to press forward with a new U of M Rochester by launching 10 new programs
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

U of M President Robert Bruininks is the incoming head of a statewide group of top education leaders, called the P-16 Partnership, which aims to change thinking by educators toward a more continuous unbroken chain of education from preschool through college.

"We're going to need a very highly skilled workforce. We're going to have the challenge of developing that workforce as the number of high school graduates in our state actually declines. We can't afford to ignore a single student or a single citizen of this state," Bruininks says.

Bruininks says what's changing, and at an increasing rate, is the ability to participate productively with a limited education.

Education experts know students who come from poverty, who are minorities, or who don't have parents who went to college are much less likely to continue past high school themselves.

Researchers also know that this is precisely the population that is growing faster right now than any other group, including those who typically take advantage of higher education.


More and more students are starting to look like Julia Rainey. Rainey, a 20-year-old American Indian, left school when she became pregnant, but is now working toward her GED at Broadway High School in Minneapolis, an alternative school for student mothers.

"I've learned a lot and am continuing to learn. I like being in class," says Rainey. "It's interesting. I'm not bored with it. I'm always interested in it. I like working with kids."

Rainey would have trouble in a traditional high school environment. But when she leaves Broadway in June, she'll have 16 college credits toward a child development certificate at Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Every graduate counts
Julia Rainey tends to her daughter Jaleesa at Broadway High School day care in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Rainey is benefiting from a program called Pathways that identifies two possible career paths, nursing and child care, that young mothers are inclined to relate to.

If Rainey chooses, she can keep building toward a four-year degree at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, or stop and take a job at the level her education permits.

Of all the students requiring remedial courses in Minnesota, 7 percent end up at the U of M. More than 40 percent go to one of the colleges in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. James McCormick, Chancellor of MnSCU, says whether students realize it or not, they're competing with workers in Mumbai and Singapore.

"I think society is going to need the talents of those from these groups that traditionally don't go to college. And I think that's one of the challenges for us, is to identify those that have the ability to go but just don't think about it -- the culture of the families and so on -- they just don't have higher education in their thinking," McCormick says.

MnSCU is also appealing to the Legislature this year for some $24 million to expand its support for populations that historically don't go to college.

If fully funded, it would more than double the system's current efforts to provide opportunities for students like Kurt Duren and Julia Rainey -- who encountered barriers to higher education, but discovered they were better off back into the classroom.