About two-thirds of the city’s high school graduates in 2000 who enrolled in college have failed to earn degrees, according to a first-of-its-kind study being released today.
The findings represent a major setback for a city school system that made significant strides in recent years with percentages of graduates enrolling in college consistently higher than national averages, according to the report by the Boston Private Industry Council and the School Department.
However, the study shows that the number who went on to graduate is lower than the national average.
The low number of students who were able to earn college degrees or post-secondary certificates in a city known as a center of American higher education points to the enormous barriers facing urban high school graduates – many of whom are the first in their families to attend college. While the study did not address reasons for the low graduation rates, these students often have financial problems, some are raising children, and others are held back by a need to retake high school courses in college because they lack basic skills.
The students’ failure to complete college could exacerbate the fiscal problems in the state’s economy, which requires a highly skilled workforce, say business leaders and educators. While tens of thousands of students around the globe flock to the region’s colleges each fall, many of them leave once receiving their degrees.
In response to the study, Mayor Thomas M. Menino plans to announce this morning a major initiative, starting with this year’s high school seniors, to increase the college graduation rate by 50 percent and then double the rate for students who are currently high school sophomores. The Boston Foundation, which financed the study along with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, has pledged $1 million this year toward that goal and hopes to allocate the same amount for each of the following four years.
“We want to make sure all our kids in Boston get a good education and graduate from college,” Menino said in an interview Friday at City Hall. “It’s not just about getting into college but how to stay in college.”
Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, said he welcomed the announcement of the mayor’s ambitious goals, which comes as the state is trying to create a seamless education system that caters to state residents from birth to college graduation.
“It’s clear we are not doing well enough to support students through graduation,” Reville said in a phone interview this weekend. “They need more help. We have to think more broadly about our approaches and the mayor is challenging us to do that.”
Two years ago, a report by the Boston Higher Education Partnership suggested the city school system needed to do a better job of preparing its graduates. That report found that half of the city’s high school graduates who studied math when they arrived at local colleges in fall 2005 had to take remedial courses, which a quarter of them failed.
The report being released today represents the city’s first effort to track the college completion rates of its high school graduates. Similar analyses are underway for subsequent graduating classes. Previous studies have followed high school graduates for only a year after graduation.
The Class of 2000 left Boston public schools with big dreams: 64.2 percent of the 2,964 members enrolled in college, about 3 percentage points higher than the national average. They went in greatest numbers to Bunker Hill Community College, followed by the University of Massachusetts at Boston, Roxbury Community College, Massachusetts Bay Community College, Northeastern University, Quincy College, and UMass Amherst.
Yet seven years later, only 675 of those who enrolled, or 35.5 percent, had earned a one-year certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree. The study suggested that rate was about 8 percentage points below a national average generated by a mid-1990s tracking study that, similar to the Boston study, examined the same types of degrees.
“This puts us on notice that we have to do more and be more aggressive in our efforts to prepare our students and work closely with higher education institutions,” Boston schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said in an interview Friday at City Hall. “A lot of our students are first-generation college-goers and some are first-generation high school graduates. So when you have students like that, you have to make sure you put in all the safety nets they need to be successful, not just in high school, but in college, too.”
The study revealed sharp disparities in success among various ethnic and racial groups. Hispanics had completion rates of 23.9 percent, and blacks 28.2 percent. By contrast 53.3 percent of whites earned degrees, while Asians were slightly below that.
Overall, women were slightly more apt to graduate from college than men. But when gender was broken down by ethnicity and race, huge gaps emerged. Just 19 percent of Hispanic men who enrolled in college went on to graduate, while 27 percent of Hispanic women did. The gap between black men and women was similar.
The study also found that exam school graduates were vastly more prepared than other city graduates. Slightly more than 59 percent of exam school alumni who enrolled in college earned some type of degree, compared with 24 percent of all others.
Menino offered few details about his plan but said some of the Boston Foundation money will expand existing nonprofit programs, such as Bottom Line in Jamaica Plain, that have had success in helping students get into and through college.
“The mayor knew there was going to be some unhappy news in the study,” said Paul S. Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation. “The fact he was willing to do the study anyway says a lot about his commitment to education.”
The efforts will be in addition to ongoing improvements in the Boston public schools, which include ramping up academic rigor by offering more college-level courses.
The superintendent also has proposed creating a “newcomers academy” for new immigrant students and also is exploring the feasibility of same-gender classes, which studies have suggested can increase student achievement.
Calling attention to college completion rates is a much-needed “game changer” in education overhaul efforts nationwide, which have largely focused on elementary and secondary schools while overlooking colleges, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a group of city business leaders that works with educators and other officials on education policy. The study could have significant impacts on state and federal budgets.
“A graduate of a four-year college will make almost $1 million more than a high school graduate over a lifetime,” said Sullivan, citing a report his group did recently. “We need to help students every step of the way earn the prize: a college degree.”
National debates over college graduation rates have been growing louder in recent years. Chicago did a study similar to Boston’s within the past few years, and Friday the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education will discuss ways to bolster the state’s low graduation rates at community colleges, according to Reville.
J. Keith Motley, the UMass Boston chancellor, said he believes all colleges should set a goal of a 100 percent completion rate, which he said his university has been working toward.
He said that the success rate at his university for Boston public school graduates who had participated in special programs at his campus while still in high school is about 85 percent.
“We are glad there will be a spotlight because we want to demonstrate these students are capable,” Motley said. “The mayor is pushing us to pay attention to all those students from the neighborhoods and we should be doing that.”
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.