Getting a kid through high school and into college might seem like a success story. But a Seattle-based research firm has found that less than a third of Washington students who start college – either two- or four-year – actually finish.
Nationally, the average college graduation rate is about 50 percent.
“People who think we have a high school dropout problem should look at the college graduation rates,” said Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education policy at Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust, an organization that seeks ways to close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from prekindergarten through college.
The data is discouraging, educators and business professionals say, because by 2018, 67 percent of all jobs in Washington will require a postsecondary education and training, according to a recent Georgetown University study.
“We shouldn’t just focus on high school graduation,” said Shelley Redinger, Spokane Public Schools superintendent. “We owe it to our students to have a different goal.”
Among Spokane-area high school graduates who started college from 2004 to 2008, Mead students had the highest graduation rate, with nearly 40 percent earning degrees. The findings are based on a five-year average of data. Mt. Spokane and Lewis and Clark high schools followed close behind, then Ferris and Shadle Park. Less than a third of students from the remaining high schools in Central Valley, East Valley, West Valley school districts and Spokane Public Schools earned college degrees.
Even when 60 to 70 percent of students who graduate from high school enroll in a postsecondary program, nearly half of them haven’t yet completed their degree, the study shows.
Graduation rates track almost directly with the socioeconomics of each high school’s ZIP code. National experts say minorities and low-income students struggle the most to complete college.
But demography isn’t destiny, said Dannenberg, who studies college completion rates and affordability. The No. 1 indicator of whether a student will complete college is the academic rigor of a student’s high school. That’s followed by a college’s intentional focus on completion, college peers and net cost of college to the student.
“If you have a strong high school curriculum and complete it, you will show up at college ready to do the work,” he said. “Those placed at the remedial level have much, much lower completion rates.”
Washington schools have struggled with math curricula for many years. In 2011, 80 to 90 percent of area students entering Community Colleges of Spokane tested into remedial math, a level the college said had been the same for about two decades. Nationally, the average remedial rate for community college students is around 60 percent.
College officials say remedial rates for those entering four-year institutions is better, but not dramatically so.
Additionally, Dannenberg said there’s a relationship between cost and completion that’s overlooked in the straight dollars-and-cents calculations of college tuition. For example, two students might both qualify to attend the University of Washington, but the cost causes one to attend community college instead. The other borrows to go to UW. “All things being equal, the student who went to college with a higher rigor is more likely to complete,” Dannenberg said.
In fact, among Washington’s colleges and universities, UW has the highest four-year graduation rate, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
College affordability is of course a contributing factor, but there are ways to solve that issue, said Dannenberg, who co-authored “Doing Away With Debt: Using Existing Resources to Ensure College Affordability for Low and Middle-Income Families.”
He wrote: “By taking the federal resources we already spend on higher education and focusing them like a laser on reducing college costs for families with incomes below $115,000 a year (the bottom 80 percent) – providing debt-free education to those below $50,000 (the bottom 40 percent) and no-interest loans with income-based repayment to the rest – we can do much to solve this critical problem without adding to the overall cost of federal student aid.”
Spokane Public Schools’ elected officials and leadership recognize that addressing the college completion rate is urgent. The district is launching an initiative this fall: T-2-4, a bold goal that all students will earn a technical degree or a degree from a two-year or four-year college or university.
“That’s going to be our new focus,” Redinger said. “The new finish line will be college completion.”
State lawmakers are recognizing the issue too.
“We have to set a higher bar. These kids need to graduate from college,” said state Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane. “It’s a big deal. It’s a metric we do need to have a conversation about with the parents and the educators.”
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