The number of Baltimore City high school graduates enrolling in four-year colleges and universities has dropped in recent years as more head to two-year institutions where they are far less likely to graduate.
The Baltimore Education Research Consortium at Johns Hopkins University found the percentage of city public school graduates heading to two-year-institutions rose 12 percentage points over four years to 52 percent in 2010, while the percentage of students enrolled in four-year-colleges declined 12 percentage points to 49 percent.
Researchers said the city lacks a "college-going culture," noting that the city's college enrollment rate continues to lag the national average. They also questioned whether guidance counseling is steering students on an easier or cheaper educational path when that might not be the right choice.
"When I look at these numbers, I think, 'Who is talking to these students?'" said Faith Connolly, executive director at the Baltimore Education Research Consortium. "I think it goes back to not a lot of good counseling taking place in city schools."
"Someone can be telling them to go to a two-year college because it's cheaper— but not telling them that the likelihood of them finishing is minimal," Connolly added. "I don't think that conversation is taking place."
City school officials said the consortium's findings underscore the need for several efforts already under way, including providing more training to counselors so they can better advise students.
District officials said they have noticed in recent years that more graduates of the district's most prestigious high schools — City College, Polytechnic Institute and Western High School — are either enrolling in two-year-colleges or four-year institutions with less selective admission criteria. The officials said they thought the trend applied districtwide.
Sonja Brookins Santelises, chief academic officer for the school system, called the report "a wake-up call for us around what we need to do, but in line with what we're doing."
"A lot of our practices are not up to date, and we have to provide more support to our guidance counselors around college access," Santelises said. "But it's also about raising the expectations — don't assume because someone has a 'C' average that the obvious choice is to go to [a community college]. That's not fair. It's about the best choices for the students."
The system works with Towson University to help introduce students early on to placement tests used for college admissions and to strengthen high school curriculum to prepare students for the rigor of higher education. In addition, a national search is on for a new director of guidance with a proven track record in placing first-generation college students in quality institutions.
Baltimore City schools have historically sent fewer graduates to college — 47 percent immediately went on to attend a higher-level institution in the fall of 2010, the report found. Nationally, about 70 percent of students enroll in college right after graduation, the report found, and about 54 percent of students from low-income families do.
The city school system appears to be grappling with where to place more emphasis in guidance counseling, researchers said. "I don't think they have a definition about 'college ready' and 'career ready,' and maybe that's a good place to start," Connolly said.
The school system has increasingly focused on career preparation, and more high school students have opted to obtain career certifications in jobs ranging from the hospitality industry to the biosciences.
Since 2008, the number of career-preparation programs offered in the city has jumped more than 50 percent, and the number of students participating in them has increased by nearly 40 — to more than 6,200.
"In the communities I serve, the parents are not asking about tracks, they are asking about their kids' readiness to do well in the real world," city schools CEO Andres Alonso said earlier this year during a discussion about career preparation versus college preparation.
Further research is needed to determine why more students are seeking degrees from two-year colleges, the consortium's report said. The researchers suggest that those institutions are a draw for Baltimore City graduates because they are more affordable, less selective and require less commitment. They also suggest additional research is needed to determine why more students are failing to complete degrees at those institutions.
Rising college costs can be a deciding factor for graduates from predominantly low-income, urban school systems when deciding whether to enroll in four-year versus two-year institutions, local advisors say. The economic downturn has hampered finances, and financial aid often isn't enough to cover the cost of a four-year-college.
Craig Spilman, executive director of CollegeBound Foundation, a nonprofit that administers college advice and scholarships to students in Baltimore's public high schools, said the organization has had to increase its financial grants to CollegeBound students from $1,500 to $3,000 per year to help fill the gap.