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Sen. Herb Kohl: Getting on the Fast Track to College
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In these trying economic times, we must carefully consider how our tax dollars are being spent. One of the best investments we can make is in our children's education, to ensure that they do not fall further behind.

Education provides an outstanding return on investment for taxpayers, and it builds the foundation for future economic growth. Young people who drop out of high school are at increased risk for unemployment and incarceration, and they are more likely to depend on public assistance for health care, housing and other basic needs. Conversely, adults with a bachelor's degree will earn two-thirds more than a high school graduate over the course of their working lives, and they are much less likely to experience unemployment or rely on social programs.

Our nation's future depends on how we respond to the growing crisis in our schools, especially the rising number of high school dropouts. This generation of Americans is the first in history to be less likely to graduate from high school than its parents. That is not a sustainable trend if we hope to remain powerful and prosperous.

Recent reports have illustrated the enormous challenge: Wisconsin has a relatively high graduation rate of 86 percent, but that rate drops to only 46 percent in the urban schools in Milwaukee. Such an achievement gap cannot continue.

As we work to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, we must find solutions to the growing dropout crisis and provide opportunities for young people to pursue higher education. More funding is not the only answer for the problems in our schools - we also must reform our whole approach to education.

We must ensure that young people have the skills they need to compete in a 21st century economy. In particular, we no longer can view a high school diploma as an end goal for students. In today's world, most students need additional college or technical education in order to learn a skill that will allow them to secure a well-paying job in order to provide for themselves and their families.

Recently, I introduced the Fast Track to College Act which would provide new tools and incentives for schools to attack the dropout problem and send more kids to college. Specifically, this bill authorizes $150 million for competitive grants to help schools create and strengthen "early college high schools" and "dual enrollment" programs for low-income students. These programs allow young people to earn college credit, including even an associate's degree, while also earning their high school diploma. These programs have proven success, especially among low-income students and those underrepresented in higher education.

The evidence shows that all students can be motivated by a challenging curriculum and the tangible rewards of achievement, including real-world exposure to career possibilities and free college credit. Free college credit is critically important, especially in this economy, as family savings dwindle and tuition costs continue to rise.

Dual enrollment programs can provide just enough cost savings to make college affordable, especially for low and middle-income families who might think it is out of their reach. Equally important, these programs introduce students to the college environment and allow them to earn credit through real college coursework. This experience bolsters their confidence and skills, and shows them that they can successfully complete a college degree - in less time and for less money than they once thought possible.

While our country faces unprecedented challenges at this moment in history, we can take this opportunity to shape our future. This legislation would provide all children, regardless of income, with the chance to fulfill their potential. It is both morally and fiscally responsible for this Congress to invest in high-quality educational programs that help them reach that goal.