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Editorial: College success remains elusive

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Last year, as the Notebook took its annual look at what’s being done to help students stay in school and earn a diploma, we lauded the fact that the on-time high school graduation rate in Philadelphia had risen to 65 percent from 52 percent nine years before.

We also pointed out that college-going rates were inching upward – an encouraging sign.

However, according to From Diplomas to Degrees, a report by Paul Harrington and Neeta Fogg of Drexel University’s Center for Labor Markets and Policy, the true picture on college-going is not rosy. More young people are enrolling, but the college dropout rate is astonishing: Of the graduates of Philadelphia public schools who start college, two-thirds fail to earn a degree within six years of finishing high school. Not only do they leave without a credential and, most likely, without 21st-century job skills, but they often accumulate a lot of debt in the process.

Hard to call that progress. It turns out, according to the study, that what counts is not just that you go to college, but how you go. The researchers say that success depends on “where and when you enroll.” If you enroll right away and have a plan, you are more likely to succeed. If you enroll in a four-year college, you are more likely to make it to graduation.

It is clear that many students are not being adequately prepared for college academically or socially. They need guidance, yet the District has been cutting counselors. It has been creating more alternative schools and programs for students who are disengaged, and many of these programs are having a real impact. But as these pathways proliferate, the neighborhood high schools that most students leave remain stubbornly resistant to change – structured using a “factory” model that is more often impersonal and alienating than nurturing and supportive.

Former Mayor Michael Nutter placed a focus on improving graduation rates at District-run schools, and those initiatives produced some level of success. But it is clear that pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

According to the study, large numbers of students who graduate from District schools scored “below basic” on 11th-grade state proficiency tests. This means that even if they get into college, they will probably be forced to take remedial classes to learn what they should have learned in high school. And they are using up their grant and loan money on these classes, which hampers their ability to continue.

For the Philadelphia Youth Network and Project U-Turn, which commissioned the study, the findings are a clarion call for a citywide conversation and an incentive to better coordinate efforts to address these issues.

Mayor Kenney’s main education-related initiatives – wider access to high-quality early childhood education and community schools that give more support to students and families – aim to address many of the deficiencies identified in the Drexel report. If these initiatives work, they will deliver more prepared and receptive students to schools and allow educators to focus more on teaching and learning.

Now that more students are thinking about college, it is incumbent on the school system to make sure they can handle the work and the required level of responsibility when they get there. Otherwise, we are doing them a disservice by preaching the gospel of higher education when their chances of succeeding in college are still so far out of reach.

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