Opinion: Want More College Students to Graduate? Fix the High Schools

"When Antwan Wilson, who resigned as chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools in February, skirted the local school-lottery system in an ill-fated effort to get his daughter into a top D.C. high school instead of a 'low performing' neighborhood school, he exposed a painful truth: Too many public high schools are failing, especially those serving low-income students of color. The chancellor lost his job, but the students in such schools are losing much more. These are the very students who, if they enroll in college, are most likely to drop out before completing degrees," Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University and Forward50 member, writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

"If we really want to fix the college-completion problem, we need to fix high schools.

Higher education is facing intense pressure to improve completion rates. College leaders got an earful on that topic at the recent American Council on Education annual meeting, where Nancy L. Zimpher, chancellor emerita of the State University of New York, recited the dismal statistics: a 59 percent six-year completion rate overall for baccalaureate students, 49 percent for Pell Grantees, and 39 percent for black students.

So-called solutions to the completion problem abound. Some universities like Georgia State can boast noteworthy improvements, but in general completion rates remain mediocre. Amid all the talk, high school gets scant attention.

Even before the school-lottery debacle, the District of Columbia Public Schools were coping with the revelation that nearly one-third of all 2017 graduates should not have graduated because of pervasive absenteeism or failure to meet learning standards. Pressure on teachers and principals to raise graduation rates, a feature of school reform, stoked the scandal. Now, in the backlash, nearly 60 percent of the district's public-high-school seniors might not graduate this year. A similar graduation scandal has rocked schools in Prince George's County, in Maryland.

When high schools fail to prepare students for even the most minimal expectations of college work — active class attendance, the ability to read and summarize a paragraph, to write cogently, and perform basic arithmetic functions — the students are set up for failure from the start. Add to academic deficiencies the intractable hurdles of poverty, like being hungry and sometimes homeless, and by midterm in the first year, too many freshmen are already failing. Colleges devote substantial resources to remediation and support services just to get students across the first-semester finish line. But over time, many underprepared and impoverished students simply stop attending, stop answering the persistent phone calls and texts from advisers, and disappear into the diaspora of the more than 30 million Americans who have attended college but have no degree.

What can colleges do to fix high schools? At Trinity Washington University, where more than half of our undergraduate students are low-income women of color from the D.C. and Prince Georges school systems, we have deep experience with the challenges posed by low-performing high schools. Along with extensive advising and support services, Trinity's faculty members have developed a strong first-year program to remedy the most acute preparatory deficiencies in critical reading, communication skills both oral and written, and math."

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Publication Date: 4/16/2018

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