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A matter of degrees

The good news is that the number of Philadelphia high school students who graduate and enroll in college is on the rise. The bad news? Only one in five get a degree.

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

Nearly six in 10 graduates from District high schools eventually enroll in college.

But more than six years after graduation, two-thirds of those who started college hadn’t finished. That means that only one in five high school graduates had attained a post-secondary degree or certificate in that time period.

This was the major finding of From Diplomas to Degrees, a report from Paul Harrington and Neeta Fogg of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University. The study was undertaken for the Philadelphia Youth Network and Project U-Turn.

Philadelphia’s college enrollment rate for high school graduates – 58 percent – is below the national average of 65 percent. But it is “close to what one would expect from a large urban area,” Fogg said in an interview.

Most telling among the findings, she said: Success depends on “where and when you enroll, if you enroll right away, if you have a plan, if you do this in a deliberate way.” If students “stumble into college, it doesn’t lead to a successful outcome.”

Completing college is crucial, because data show that students with some college, but no degree, fare no better in the labor market than high school graduates.

The data show that the great majority of Philadelphia graduates “stumble” toward their future rather than get the kind of guidance they need. Most enroll in two-year colleges, but success is more likely in four-year institutions. And many delay their matriculation, even though those who go to college immediately have a far better chance of graduating.

More than that, the data show that many are unprepared, academically and otherwise, for the rigors and demands of college.

“Access is good, but how the access is obtained will determine the chance for success,” Fogg said. “It is nice having 58 percent wanting to go to college, but there are things that, if they did them differently, maybe the outcomes would be better.”

The researchers followed the class of more than 9,000 first-time 9th graders from 2003-04 in District-run high schools. The students’ expected high school graduation year would be 2007 and their college graduation, 2011. The researchers tracked their progress through spring of 2014.

The goal of the study was to determine what factors and characteristics were more likely to lead students to college success. Overall, the report paints a sobering picture of the students: the choices they make, the obstacles they face, and the difficulty finding the massive supports they need.

Here are some highlights:

• Females are far more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in and complete college than males. There are 122 female college graduates for every 100 males.

• The proportion of graduates entering college varies considerably by ethnic group: 79 percent of Asians enroll, but just 47 percent of Hispanics do, and the share of Whites and Blacks is between those two.

• Nearly half, 46 percent, of students who enroll in college immediately after finishing high school get degrees, compared to just 15 percent who delay enrollment. Immediate enrollment in a four-year school indicates the highest likelihood of success, but less than half the graduates follow this path.

• Students with good attendance in high school and a higher grade-point average were significantly more likely to complete college. A discipline record was not found to be a significant indicator – but that is probably because nearly half of Philadelphia public high school students are suspended at least once.

• English language learners are as likely to enroll in college as others, and, surprisingly, substantially more likely to graduate.

• High school grade-point average, which measures a variety of skills and habits, is a better predictor of later college success than test scores.

• Large numbers of students who graduate from District schools scored “below basic” on 11th-grade state proficiency tests – 42 percent in language arts and 55 percent in math. A substantial number of these students enroll in college, but only about one-fifth of them make it through.

• Proportionally, when controlling for other factors, more African Americans with low skills than Whites with low skills enroll in college, but they are less likely to obtain a degree or certificate.

Fogg said that there is a positive aspect to this last finding, because it shows high college aspirations among African American students, who make up two-thirds of District graduates.

The need, Fogg said, is to turn desire and access into cultivation of habits that lead to success – a daunting prospect.

For instance, after adjusting for everything else – background, gender, ethnicity, academic proficiency – those with a 10 percentage point increase in high school attendance had a 7 percentage point increase in college completion. But many students don’t see regular attendance in high school as worth their while, and they come to regret that later.

Just ask Quaymir Cephas. Cephas is a smart, ambitious guy. But the 2013 graduate of University City High School acknowledges that he messed around in school, got into his share of fights, and skipped class when he felt like it.

“I got suspended a lot,” he said.

Since graduation, he has taken courses at Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) and Temple University and worked at several jobs. He has aspirations to be a psychologist. But at age 21 and as a new father, he is far from any degree.

Cephas never thought seriously about going to college until talking to a classmate who was going to Clark Atlanta University.

“He was saying, ‘You’re crazy. Us both having the same grades, I know you can do just as good as I’m doing.’”

He is determined to go back to Temple in the fall and start taking psychology courses. He wants to validate the faith of his friend.

“I gotta do this, not just for me, but for other people around me, people who actually believed in my … trying to do it,” he said.

Chalisha Clemens, 22, is representative of another kind of student: She spent her childhood bouncing around in foster homes, suffering abuse, constantly changing schools, struggling to survive. A recent national report showed that just 2 percent of foster children attain college degrees by age 25. And the Drexel study shows that high student mobility is another factor that works against college success.

Clemens saw a bus ad for YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School, for 18- to 21-year-olds. Students stay there a year, get their diploma, and learn a trade. Most important, they find a family-like support system.

Now she is enrolled in CCP and determined to get a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. She has been accepted by Temple as part of a dual-enrollment program, where she can finish her bachelor’s degree after earning her associate’s.

“A child doesn’t have control over their past, but once they are a certain age, they have every right to change their life around,” Clemens said.

Will she achieve her goals?

“I try every day.”

But it is hard. Both Cephas and Clemens have been required to take remedial courses. Gaps in the academic skills of high school graduates, Fogg said, are a tough problem, and colleges have not figured out a good way to address it.

Other interventions offered by colleges to help students who lack traditional preparation don’t often work. Some have run successful summer bridging programs for low-income students, but curtailed them in the face of state budget cuts.

But the most common strategy to prepare students for college work is requiring them to take remedial courses. That approach, Fogg said, is a failure and needs revamping.

Fogg said studies at Drexel and elsewhere had shown that “remediation in college has zero impact … on the kids’ retention, persistence, and completion in college. Kids don’t get anywhere.”

In fact, Fogg said, they can be worse off. Remediation largely requires students to sit through the same courses, taught in the same way, as the ones that didn’t reach them in high school. They feel disrespected.

Said Cephas: “I thought it was a waste of time.”

Plus, they use up their federal Pell grants and loans on these courses, leaving them in debt with nothing to show for it.

“Trying to fix academic deficiencies in college with a little bit of remediation doesn’t help students,” she said. “It is too little, too late. A lot of colleges are trying to grapple with it, and they don’t know how.”

Fogg said that the whole system “needs to be fixed in a lot of places,” starting with schools at the earliest levels.

“There are a lot of missteps in the process, but there are ways to change things to get better outcomes. It is not hopeless.”

Notebook intern Glen Casey contributed to this story.