Warner seeks to "shake up higher education" at Curry School talk

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 Soon after U.S. Senator Mark Warner took the microphone September 9 in the atrium of the new Bavaro Hall at UVA’s Curry School of Education, it became clear that the intent of the Democratic senator’s visit was not to wax poetic over the status quo.

U.S. Senator Mark Warner remarked that top-tier universities have been “complacent” in efforts to admit students of differing capabilities and skills.

In a one-hour town hall meeting, Warner emphasized the need to “dramatically rethink” how high schools, community colleges and four-year universities collaborate in order to prepare students for an increasingly competitive working world. Through this collaboration, students could save money, transition more smoothly into a college course load and have better training for a specific technical skill, Warner said.

The senator and former governor directed particularly sharp words at the leaders of four-year universities, challenging them to be more willing to admit and support students who are academically capable but whose SAT scores and Advanced Placement resumés might not reflect that ability.

“Top-tier universities have been pretty complacent,” he said. “You don’t need to [admit] that student who needs remediation, or if you do, you can put a few aside in some little program, tout it and say, ‘Oh, look what we did here.’”

In addressing cost, Warner labeled the country’s higher education financing system “broken” and noted that it is “rapidly pricing higher education out of the reach of lots and lots of our middle class families.”

To save money for families and assure college remains accessible to all who qualify, the senator suggested that four-year colleges partner more closely with high schools to allow 11th and 12th graders to take courses that would fulfill basic bachelor degree requirements.

Current high school options—such as the College Board’s Advanced Placement program and dual-enrollment arrangements with community colleges—are part of the solution, Warner said, but he feels four-year colleges need to become more accommodating and not require students to re-take classes they mastered in high school.

In addition to addressing the affordability of a bachelor’s degree, Warner challenged educators to acknowledge that four years of college might not suit every student.

“Over half of the jobs being created now do not require a four-year degree,” he said.

The senator advocated following an education model similar to those used in Europe, most notably in Germany, in which interested 10th and 11th graders would start planning their coursework for a certain skill or trade. That way, their high school diplomas would also give them certification in a specific industry, whether it be auto mechanics or plumbing.

This system could be thought of as a “K-13” model, Warner said.

“We’d give you up to a free semester in community college to get that industry certification,” he said. “[Certification] would increase earning power by $5,000, and that would be a net value add in terms of additional tax revenue.”

UVA education professor Brian Pusser told Warner that leaders within the education realm are acknowledging that “too many” high school students are not college-ready. Pusser then issued a challenge of his own, asking the senator: “What can you do legislatively?”

Give less funding to those schools that see a drop in retention rates, Warner suggested.

The senator also wants to incentivize four-year universities so they form stronger bonds with community colleges.

“You can’t look down your noses on community college education,” Warner said.

With speculation swirling that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may leave the Obama Administration to run for mayor of Chicago in 2011, Warner has been mentioned by some media outlets as a candidate to replace Emanuel.

C-VILLE asked the senator directly whether he has any interest in the job. Without pause, Warner emphatically responded, “No,” while his aides erupted in laughter around him.

With the economy at the top of Obama’s agenda, Warner would bring to the post the business acumen he developed when he was a telecommunications industry executive. However, he is not up for re-election until 2014, and it would seem that Democrats would not want to risk losing a vote to Republicans should Warner vacate his seat to take over for Emanuel.

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