By Chris Stewart, July guest blogger
Recently Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota stunned participants in a community meeting by stating the difference he discovered in two Minnesota high schools. One suburban high school Orfield studied received visits from over 200 colleges in the past year. In contrast, at an urban high school North Minneapolis there were just two visits from colleges.
Orfield’s point was to illustrate spatial mismatch of opportunity that is caused by re-segregating public schools. However, my takeaway was a little different. While nearly every school district it the country has some form of commitment to preparing “college-ready” students, few communities have done all they can to demystify college for non-traditional students and their families. Even with excellent programs that offer graduation coaches and additional support to get students into college, there is often not enough support to get them through college.
College completion, after all, is the real goal and it’s no secret that we’re not getting there with our disadvantaged student populations.
The numbers are telling. Though the percentage of students of color enrolled in degree-granting institutions doubled from 15% in 1976 to over 34% in 2009, few come out the other end with their intended degree. For instance, in public four-year universities, less than 40% of African Americans graduate within six years. We may be doing a better job of getting disadvantaged students (women, low-income, and students of color) to the college doors, but too few of them are graduating. Experience is teaching us that we can get more students into college without truly impacting the college graduation gap.
Thankfully, Minnesota education officials plan to address the completion gap with solid construction of a K-14 pipeline. Commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Director Larry Pogemiller, and Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, respectively, are aligning the Department of Education, Office of Higher Education, and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to close the gap between secondary and college. By offering high school students more access to college level coursework, leaders hope to increase college readiness and completion for Minnesota students, while also reducing remediation once students reach college.
It is hugely important for students to complete rigorous course work earlier, and for expectations in high schools to be more aligned with colleges. Programs like the University of Minnesota’s College In the Schools (CIS) meet that objective by preparing high school teachers to deliver college courses on site, providing students an opportunity to earn high school and college credit for free. Advanced placement and International Baccalaureate programming also lift students closer to college level. Indeed, there are a number of great site-based options for high schools to better prepare students, but there is one problem with most of them: they do a poor job of truly demystifying college for students that need more demonstrative examples of post-secondary life.
To their credit, legislators expanded Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) last year. That program allows high school students to attend college classes and earn college credits for free. This allows students to experience college academically and physically. Actually placing students into college earlier is a great way to expose them to the realities they will face later. Unfortunately, many within the education establishment have been slow to market and support PSEO to the students that could really use the opportunity.
Given the daunting average college graduation rates it is clear why we might succumb to the perceived inevitability of graduation inequity. However, looking at how the college persistence gap (the extent to which students stay in college) differs in different colleges and universities helps us see a more productive picture. Some schools are addressing academic and social factors to keep students in college, and in some cases the efforts are so successful that African American graduation rates are similar or better than white students. These schools start with a universal commitment to seeing minority student performance as a core part of their mission. Departments are asked to create comprehensive plans and establish stretch goals for graduation rates. Staff members engage at all levels to play a role in an “early alert” system to intervene with “intrusive” supports for struggling students. Some schools offer early summer starts so students have more time to acclimate to college. Some have peer-mentoring systems that improve academics and promote a healthy, inclusive school culture. The bottom line is that schools with better than average graduation rates for non-traditional students take proactive, structural, and cultural actions to achieve results.
While we in Minnesota labor over renewed calls for K-12 racial integration, or work for better alignment between K-12 and post-secondary; we should also expect changes in our colleges that make them relevant to the emerging class of students that have succeeded more in entering college than exiting one with a degree.