Should Every High School Graduate Be Able to Attend College?

Should every student have the option of attending college? Our schools certainly operate under that premise: the whole purpose of the Common Core movement is to ensure that students graduate from high school with the skills necessary to attend college, should they choose that path.

Yet many school systems are falling far short of that goal, not only in urban areas, but in the suburbs as well. While high school graduation rates are often noticeably higher in suburban areas than in cities, many students – particularly African American, Hispanic, and low income students – do not take the SAT and ACT tests at the same percentages, nor score as well on those tests, as their White and Asian peers.

A report by the America’s Promise Alliance found that only 53% of high school students in the United States’ 50 largest cities graduate on time. While high school students in suburban schools are much more likely to graduate on time, there are marked differences based on income, race, and ethnicity.

For example, the graduation rate in Rhode Island in 2013 was 79.7% (it has since increased to 81%). Using 2013, data, over half of our students are low income; they graduated at a rate of 69.3%, more than 22 percentage points lower than their non-low income peers (at 91.7%). To compare just a few school districts, see the table below.

District Low-Income 4-Year Grad Rate Dropout Rate

Providence 80% 71% 14%

East Providence 50% 77% 8%

Barrington 4% 94% 1%

East Greenwich 6% 96% 1%

School districts with higher percentages of low-income students (those eligible for Free or Reduced Meals) have much lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates, both in RI and across the nation.

To determine if students are graduating with the skills necessary to attend college, we have to look at several different factors. Many American colleges still require the SAT or ACT exam; in Rhode Island, 59% of students in the Class of 2015 took the SAT. According to the College Board, only 24% of those students attained a total score of 1550 or better, the benchmark for college readiness.

Nationwide, only 43% of SAT test-takers meet the benchmark for college readiness, a percentage that has not changed in several years. Among minorities, the percentage is even lower: 15.8% for African Americans, 23.4% for Hispanics, and 33.5% for Native Americans. Not surprisingly, those students who meet the benchmark are significantly more likely to enroll in college and complete their degree within four years.

In the United States, almost 60% of college freshmen are required to take remedial courses in English or Mathematics. In two-year or community colleges, where the main eligibility for enrollment is a high school diploma or GED, fully three-quarters (75%) of the students need remedial classes before they can pursue their degree.

So what’s the solution? Maybe, as Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli suggests in Slate, we shouldn’t be trying to prepare all students for college. Perhaps, rather than setting unrealistic expectations for some students, we should be “making sure that there are real options for our young people—options that include high-quality career and technical education.”

But if we truly want to eliminate the achievement gap so that more high school students graduate with the option of attending college, we need to start providing support much earlier. Early experiences from birth through age five are critical to brain development and healthy social-emotional growth. Children (often low-income) who enter kindergarten without preschool experience are already at a disadvantage when compared with their peers.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in late September that it would give $157 million to create and expand charter schools nationwide, despite questions regarding their effectiveness. This latest grant increases the total amount awarded to charter schools since 1995 to over $3 billion.

Imagine if we were to allocate that kind of funding to home visiting programs and early childhood education centers. Or to tax-credits for low-income families, so that they could afford to enroll their children in quality early childhood programs. Rather than only 34% of all American fourth graders being proficient in reading, maybe 75% of them would be proficient! And those students would be more likely to meet college readiness benchmarks.

America must decide if we really want all of our high school graduates to be able to go on to college. And if we do, we need to start building the scaffolding to get them there now, creating a true continuum that starts at birth and continues through high school graduation. If we truly believe that every child should have the potential to pursue his or her dreams, then we have to provide the launch pad.

This post was also published at GoLocalProv.

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