U.S. diploma in down spin


IF EVER a case were to be made for beefing up Maryland's high school graduation standards, it's in a national report issued yesterday on the sorry status of the diploma.

That piece of paper signifying a student has completed so many "Carnegie units" of English, math and other subjects has "lost its value," says the report. That's because what it takes to earn a diploma "is disconnected from what it takes for graduates to compete successfully beyond high school - either in the classroom or in the workplace."

"In every state, you can graduate from high school without knowing what you need to know," said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve Inc., an organization created by the nation's governors and business leaders. Achieve is one of three sponsors of the report, "Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts."

The trouble, said Cohen, is that graduation is determined by the number of courses a student takes, not the content of those courses or whether the graduate learned anything. The diploma becomes, therefore, a certificate of attendance. And only about half the states - Maryland is about to join their ranks - require exit tests for graduation.

Cohen maintained that there is little incentive for colleges and universities to pay much attention to the poor preparation of high school graduates, more than half of whom need remedial work in college.

But employers have a huge incentive. In a poll accompanying the report, more than 60 percent of employers questioned whether a diploma means that a typical high school student has learned even the basics, and they rated graduates' skills in grammar, spelling, writing and basic math as only "fair" to "poor."

Yesterday, I ran the report's major findings by senior officials at three of Maryland's major employers, McCormick & Co., Johns Hopkins Hospital and CitiFinancial Corp. They hire thousands of workers a year, many with no more than a high school education.

All were kind, even sympathetic to the public schools. McCormick, Hopkins and CitiFinancial are members of the Maryland Business Round- table for Education, a group that promotes business-school partnerships and doesn't waste a lot of time harping about the poor quality of public education.

But it's clear that the Maryland high school diploma has lost much of its value in the past 20 years. Employers have always trained workers in job-specific and computer skills, but these days they're training for the basic skills in reading and math that new employees didn't pick up in high school.

"We're spending $100,000 a year on remedial education and skills enhancement so our employees can advance to the next level," said Pamela D. Paulk, a vice president of the Johns Hopkins Health System. "I'm on a soapbox about this. Education is an asset, like money in the bank. And in this economy, you need it, or you'll never go anywhere."

Another example from Roger Kent, chief financial officer of one of the subsidiaries of Citigroup, the parent company of CitiFinancial: Twenty years ago, employees in credit-card customer service received four weeks of training. Now it's 6 1/2 weeks. "These are people who need verbal skills to interact with customers," said Kent. "And they no longer write their own letters. They now choose from prewritten correspondence."

McCormick has workers all over the world. New employees attend a "learning and development center," where they learn what's expected of them, along with the basic elements of reading, writing and math.

Robert J. Lawless, the spice company's chairman, president and chief executive, has lived abroad. "I'm not critical of our high schools," he said. "We're still getting the kinds of employees we want at all levels, though it's getting more difficult."

But in other countries where the company operates, Lawless said, "schools have more accountability and higher standards."

4.9% higher tuition to push Hopkins over $30,000 level

It must be hard to write the news release announcing the Johns Hopkins University's annual tuition increase. This year's announcement gets to the good news first. The increase of 4.9 percent is the third in a row held under 5 percent. That makes the University System of Maryland's double-digit increases look pretty severe.

But read on: Hopkins tuition for 2004-2005 will be $30,140, up from this year's $28,730. That's not a typo. Add $10,000 or so for room, board and other expenses, and a year at Homewood will require more than $40,000.

But that's only the sticker price. Ellen Frishberg, Hopkins' financial aid director, says a typical student will pay about half of the posted tuition. Six of every 10 students get need-based aid, 46 percent of them from Hopkins' funds.

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