Who Gets to Graduate? Really?

In Alabama, the high school graduation rate has climbed to 80%, the highest level in the state’s history. Nationally these numbers are similar, according to the most recent GradNation report, Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic. For the first time, the nation’s high school graduation rate rose above 80%.

But who is graduating from college? Demographics shouldn’t matter when it comes to student achievement. Ideally the only factor that should determine who graduates is academic ability.

However, there are countless stories of students who work hard but don’t graduate with the ability to succeed academically beyond high school. It is very possible that a straight-A, honors student from Lowndes County is less likely to graduate from college than a C-student from Homewood. And this phenomenon isn’t unique to Alabama.

The New York Times article, “Who Gets to Graduate” by Paul Tough, raises the question – why do many ambitious, high-achieving students leave their college dreams behind?

The truth is, as Tough points out, there are two big trends nationally when looking at college graduation rates.

“The first is that there are a whole lot of students who make it to college … but never get their degrees. More than 40 percent of American students who start at four-year colleges haven’t earned a degree after six years.”

If you include community or two-year college students in the statistics, says Tough, “the dropout rate is more than half, worse than any other country except Hungary.”

“The second trend,” Tough continues, “ is that whether a student graduates or not seems to depend today almost entirely on just one factor – how much money his or her parents make.”

Looking at the national statistics, Tough notes that only one-fourth of college freshmen from the lowest income families earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, while about 90 percent of freshman born into the highest-earning families will finish their degree within six years.

But why? How is affluence such an incredibly apparent determinant for college success?

Tough theorizes several reasons that students from poor families are less likely to graduate. Among them:

  • Complicated financial-aid forms and little help to complete them.
  • The “powerful tug of family obligations” – the need to be home and helping their family.
  • The lack of knowledge and help choosing the right college – and instead choosing a mediocre school that’s more of a “dropout factory.”
  • Overwhelming expenses and/or taking on too many loans.
  • Lack of confidence in ability to meet the high expectations of college rigor.

One student at the University of Texas was almost completely derailed by failing her required statistics class. The failure made her question her ability and lose confidence. Fortunately she didn’t give up. She asked for help and beat the odds—even after her mother’s discouraging comment that maybe her daughter “just wasn’t meant to be there.”

When we look at Alabama’s remediation rates, it is clear many Alabama students are unprepared for college-level rigor each year. This can lead them to a similar fate. Among the statewide class of 2013, about 51% enrolled in a two- or four-year public college. Out of those students, 31.8% were enrolled in remedial classes in math, English or both during the Fall 2013 semester. For just the two-year colleges, that percentage was 46.1%.

Remedial classes cover academic material that should have been mastered in high school. Due to the time and financial costs of remedial classes, many students who take them fail to ever graduate from college..

In Alabama, the State Board of Education’s Plan 2020 is focused on raising the high school graduation rate to 90% by 2020, but also ensuring that those graduating are ready for higher levels of study if they choose to enroll in a two-year or four-year college. For students electing not to attend a college, the state is also working to prepare them to go straight into a career.

All students, whether college or career-bound, need certain basic knowledge and skills. Using the best research and proven practices, Alabama has raised its academic standards to the same benchmarked standards of high-achieving states and countries. Alabama is now working to provide the necessary professional development and other resources to public schools in order to implement the high standards for all students.

Local schools are also providing more career-technical education than ever before, and many are partnering with local industries to help more students prepare for a career or spark an interest in higher-level education.

All of this work has the potential to give students the ability to continue working toward higher education and high-level, career opportunities after graduation, and have the confidence and grit to stick with it through the challenges. But, Alabama and other states still have a long way to go.