In College, But Only Marginally

Globe Editorial
The Boston Globe
In college, but only marginally
December 23, 2008
MUCH SOUL-SEARCHING is taking place on local college campuses after a recent study showing that college was a bust for almost two-thirds of Boston high school graduates in the class of 2000. Students attending two-year community colleges–the least-expensive option–fared the worst in the survey by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, with an abysmal 12 percent graduation rate.
Specific results for all public and private colleges in the study should be available shortly after Christmas. But some figures are trickling in. Roxbury Community College fell flat. Of the 101 students from the high school class of 2000 who enrolled in RCC shortly after high school, only 6 percent would go on to earn a diploma there–or anywhere else–by June 2007. Quincy College, a low-profile, two-year college on the South Shore, did comparatively well (but not good enough) by its 62 Boston students, posting a 19 percent graduation rate. Bunker Hill Community College, which drew 155 enrollees from Boston’s class of 2000, yielded a 14 percent graduation rate.
The study, which was funded by the Boston Foundation, strips away some of the hype about college attendance rates in Boston. Seven out of 10 public school graduates may get into college, but many lack the preparation to succeed. At Bunker Hill, for example, more than 80 percent of the Boston students from the class of 2000 required a remedial math course. Wisely, Bunker Hill and Boston school officials are now introducing students at some city high schools to the placement exams they will face on campus in the coming year.
The study should put an end to common claims by community college officials that their graduation rates don’t reveal much because many of their students transfer to four-year colleges before earning associate degrees. In this study, a student merely needed to earn a diploma or certificate from any institution of higher education, not just the original college. And by providing at least a six-year window, the study made allowances for students who often juggle college with work or family obligations. Rationalizations are now off the table.

Bad numbers as motivation
There will be more than a few red-faced college officials when the final statistics are released. Only about one-third of students at four-year state colleges pulled through. Students at four-year, private colleges fared best, with a 56 percent graduation rate. Still, the study is proving to be a good motivator. UMass-Boston, which struggles with graduation rates, is expected to take a lead role in crafting solutions. And the Boston Private Industry Council, a co-author of the study, is keeping up the pressure with plans to publish graduation data for future Boston public school classes.
The stakes are highest at the community colleges, a traditional choice for students who struggled in high school. Mary Fifield, Bunker Hill Community College president, has launched a program that pairs remedial courses with college-level classes for incoming full-time students. Students are grouped by ability or academic interest and placed with handpicked professors who take an interest in their academic achievement and social adjustment. The college is also planning a “survival skills” class for freshmen, focusing on everything from reading class schedules to maximizing financial aid.
At Roxbury Community College, officials say they are also launching initiatives with the help of a Lumina Foundation grant to provide more intensive advising and tutoring, as well as a mandatory course on study skills for first-semester students. Impending cuts in the state budget, however, threaten these offerings.
Progress on the South Shore
Self-supporting Quincy College, a public community college operated under the auspices of the South Shore city, may have a lot to teach in tough times. Although the college offers few formal retention programs and no on-site day care for its roughly 4,000 students, it manages to outperform some of its state-operated counterparts. College president Sue Harris says that student advisers are widely available in the evening.
The college also offers so-called “nested semesters” that allow students to take accelerated courses over 10- or even 5-week periods in addition to the traditional 15-week schedule. The faster pace creates a sense of urgency missing on many campuses. Minority students, who make up 42 percent of the student body, appear to fare especially well at Quincy College. Black and Hispanic graduation rates for a recent class, says Harris, outstripped that of Asian students.
No one believes that ill-prepared urban students will suddenly cruise through college. But any college that can’t help at least half to the finish line needs to reexamine what value it is adding to the educational experience.
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.