Over the last five years, Baltimore's school reform efforts have resulted in significantly more students graduating from high school and going on to higher education. Normally, that would be all to the good. But a new report sharply questions whether the kinds of institutions many of these students are attending will actually lead to a college degree and the greater opportunities they seek. School officials need to take a hard look to make sure the institutions their graduates choose provide them with the best possible chance to succeed in life.
The report, by the Baltimore Education Research Consortium at Johns Hopkins University, found that even at the city's top public high schools, the number of graduates heading to traditional four-year colleges and universities dropped 12 percent over the last four years, while the number of students enrolling in community colleges increased by a similar margin.
The jump in two-year college enrollments may reflect the increased financial pressure on families from the recession, or it may simply be a function of more kids staying in high school until they graduate. But it's cause for concern in either case because students at two-year colleges generally are far less likely to earn degrees than their peers in four-year institutions. And not earning a degree can make a huge difference in a student's lifetime earnings potential and opportunities for career advancement; college grads earn twice as much as non-college grads over the course of their working lives and about three times that of workers who never graduated high school.
Historically, Baltimore has sent fewer of its high school grads on to college than the national average. Even with the recent reforms, only about 48 percent of the city's public school graduates are enrolling in college immediately after graduation. That compares with 70 percent among students nationally, and it's lower even than the 54 percent of students from low-income families who enter college the same year they graduate. The national statistics, of course, also include many students who choose to attend two-year rather than four-year institutions. But given where it's starting out from, Baltimore clearly needs to push as many of its students as possible toward traditional four-year colleges and universities.
That's not to say that two-year colleges don't play an important role in the communities they serve, which include students with a wide range of interests and ages. Moreover, the standards by which these schools are judged are not necessarily the same as those of their four-year counterparts.
For example, a community college that offers courses to retrain laid-off workers in another skill, or that allows part-time students to earn professional certificates as physician's aides or paralegals, or that presents art and music appreciation classes for retirees, may count itself successful even though very few of those enrolled end up being awarded a formal associate's degree. That is why a graduation rate of 5 percent, which would be completely unacceptable for a four-year institution, may be perfectly normal at a community college.
Having said that, however, community colleges, where the average age of students is between 27 and 30, present challenges for an 18-year-old recent high school grad that most four-year colleges don't. For one thing, the younger students may have a harder time fitting in socially, which is a big part of the college experience. They also might not get as much academic supervision and personal attention from instructors as they would get as freshmen on a four-year campus. Ideally, such students would stay at community college only long enough to bring their grades up to the point where a more selective college might accept them.
Baltimore City school officials have put an emphasis on helping students fill out college financial aid applications and boosting their college readiness through more Advanced Placement courses in high school. It's vital that teachers and guidance counselors help them start planning their college careers long before they actually graduate, and in plenty of time to thoroughly consider the advantages and disadvantages of different types of institutions.
But the state also needs to work to create a better pipeline for those who would use community college as a stepping stone for a four-year degree. Maryland has ambitious goals to increase the percentage of adults with bachelor's degrees within the next decade, and the four-year institutions don't have the capacity to do that by themselves. Community colleges have to be part of the strategy for achieving that goal, but they can only do so with better tracking of students, stronger advising and closer coordination with four-year schools to align curricula and standards.
That's important for students across the state, but particularly so in Baltimore, which lacks a strong college-going culture and has many students who would be the first members of their family to attend an institution of higher learning. The city schools must do everything they can to prepare as many students as possible for four-year colleges. But state education officials must make sure that those who for financial or academic reasons must start at community colleges still have a chance of succeeding in school as well as in life.