Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Aiming for College Graduation

When punching to the face, the trick is to aim for the back of the head, thereby delivering maximum force at the point of impact. By analogy, when preparing our students for college, we need to focus on college graduation, thereby ensuring they are maximally prepared upon entering college. I have three college related goals for our seniors – maximum choice, degree attainment, and minimum debt obligations. We can expand choice by improving academics and financial planning. We can improve the percentage of students who actually complete college by better preparing them for college. And we can help them avoid crushing debt through financial planning services. We need to look beyond high school graduation.

Before continuing, let’s first review a cardinal rule in data study – correlation does not prove causation. For example, most great basketball players are tall. That doesn’t mean playing basketball will help you grow taller. By extension, there’s no proof that a college degree improves lifetime earnings, only that people with college degrees tend to earn more.

Correlation often proves a relationship but it doesn’t define that relationship. It’s easy to see why tall basketball players have an advantage over shorter basketball players but the relationship between a college degree and lifetime earnings is less obvious. Certain high paying careers require advanced degrees but even people with just a bachelor’s degree out-earn their peers. Is it the college education or do colleges simply attract the type of person who is more likely to advance professionally? We don’t know.

We have the same questions in education. There are strong correlations between advanced high school coursework and college graduation rates. We don’t know why. The courses may attract students that are more likely to complete college degrees. Students with challenging academic backgrounds may be more likely to attend colleges that offer better support services. Or maybe taking tough classes better prepares a student for the rigors of college.

Will placing a student in an AP class improve his chances of graduating college? Will giving students a challenging math curriculum improve their chances of getting college degrees? We don’t know. We don’t have the data. All we know is that there is a correlation between academic achievement in high school and college graduation rates.

Having said that, I believe the evidence strongly suggests that raising academic expectations in high school will result in higher college graduation rates. As the National Center for Educational Accountability says in its report, The Relationship between Advanced Placement and College Graduation, “The percent of a school’s students who take and pass AP exams is the best AP-related indicator of whether the school is preparing increasing percentages of its students to graduate from college.” (p.13)

First a story and then some data.

Boston, Massachusetts is widely, deservedly, and proudly regarded as the city of higher education. Growing up in Boston, I remember my community taking great pride in academic excellence.

In 2006, the Boston Higher Education Partnership commissioned a report showing that half of 2005’s graduating class from Boston public schools required remedial math their first year in college. Two years later, the city investigated college graduation rates. The results were shocking.

Boston’s class of 2000 had 2,964 graduates. Of those, 64.2% enrolled in college, including both 4-year and 2-year institutions. After seven years, only 35.5% of the students who enrolled in college had completed ANY degree, whether a one-year certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor's degree.

Nationally, a freshman’s probability of getting a bachelor’s degree at his college within 6 years is 57%. The probability of a freshman at Brookdale Community College getting an associates degree or transferring to another institution within 3 years is about 30%. (Passaic Community College has a 6% graduation rate.)

Meanwhile, student loans are not dischargeable through bankruptcy or by failing to earn a degree. 7.7% of 4-year graduates accumulate over $40,000 of debt. Private student loan companies often charge 10% origination fees and 18% interest. (Federal loans are capped, hence the need for private lending.) New Jersey plans to reduce aid to career colleges by almost 40%.

We don’t want our district’s graduates beginning adult life with crushing debt and poor job prospects. As in life, the best medicine is preventative care.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Toolbox: (p.19)

The academic intensity of the student’s high school curriculum still counts more than anything else in precollegiate history in providing momentum toward completing a bachelor’s degree. At the highest level of a 31-level scale describing this academic intensity (see Appendix F), one finds students who, through grade 12 in1992, had accumulated: (A Carnegie unit equals 120 hours of class time)
  • 3.75 or more Carnegie units of English
  • 3.75 or more Carnegie units of mathematics highest mathematics of either calculus, precalculus, or trigonometry
  • 2.5 or more Carnegie units of science or more than 2.0 Carnegie units of core laboratory science (biology, chemistry, and physics)
  • more than 2.0 Carnegie Units of foreign languages
  • more than 2.0 Carnegie Units of history and social studies
  • 1.0 or more Carnegie Units of computer science
  • more than one Advanced Placement course
  • no remedial English; no remedial mathematics
These are minimums. In fact, students who reached this level of academic curriculum intensity accumulated much more than these threshold criteria (see table F1), and 95 percent of these students earned bachelor’s degrees (41 also percent earned master’s, first professional, or doctoral degrees) by December 2000.

Furthermore, evidence shows “The highest level of mathematics reached in high school continues to be a key marker in precollegiate momentum, with the tipping point of momentum toward a bachelor’s degree now firmly above Algebra 2.” (p.20)
As for the constant complaints that socio-economic status plays a dominant role – “Of student demographic characteristics, only one — socioeconomic status — was significantly associated with degree completion, though in a modest manner.” ( p.24, emphasis mine)

Our senior graduates represent the culmination of all our district’s efforts to prepare our children for adulthood. At the very least, our students should have the academic skills to pursue higher education at the schools of their choices and complete their degrees without being overburdened by debt.

In that vein, I will be urging our district to track the following:
  1. Which institutions of higher learning have accepted (not enrolled) our students?
  2. How many of our students have achieved the academic benchmarks indicating they would be statistically likely to receive a 4-year degree should they choose to enroll in college?
  3. Have our students and their parents/guardians received appropriate financial planning services?
Most of us want our children to attend college and all of us want our children to have that choice. Let’s be sure they have the skills to finish what they start. >>> Read more!


Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective and a laudible goal. If this is followed through on, I hope we have tangible results within a few months and that we use those results to give our HS students the academic and finacial assistance needed for them to be accepted into colleges/universites of their choice and that they continue their studies and graduate within the norm of two or four years. It is sad to see how many begin their college education only to quit without completing the degree requirements. We need to change that trend.

Anonymous said...

It is all about the money. Just look at Rutgers and the increase in tuition the last five years. Money, vasts amounts of money dumped into athletic programs and salaries with little long standing results. Corzine promises to raise 30 Million for the stadium construction and does not do it. You know Corzine will spend more then that for his failed election attempt this year. Then the school leadership bonds 120M to build the stadium based on ticket sales paying the 120M and sales are dismal.

Who is running the insane asylum?

Low life politicians with their arrogance, inflated egos and backroom deals. Worst of all id Dick Codey, Roberts and the ultimate egomaniac John Corzine. Codey they say will leave public office to head up the NJSEA at the Meadowlands. All these men are at the root cause of the Xanadu complex failure as well. Corzine and all of the rest of them that are up for election deserve to be kicked to the curb this coming election day. Each and every one of them must go. If they are not part of the solution then they are the problem. If they don't speak out against the lunacy that goes on around them then they are a wasted seat of leadership.

Anonymous said...

We need to start with guidance councelors encouraging students to continue to take these higher academic classes in their junior and senior year. Parents need to go with their students to meet the councelors, for course selections.

I was there with my student, and the councelor wasn't pushing my child to take more demanding academic classes. She was simply stating the bare minimum requirements and encouraging my teenager to take what was enjoyable to them. Thankfully, as a parent, I wasn't going to allow that to happen. Unfortunately, as a parent, I felt that I was up against the councelor to convince my child to take classes that would be a better preparation for college. That shouldn't be the case.