In the 21st century, countries that prosper will have highly educated work forces that can compete in a global marketplace. Yet while the U.S. once led the world in the proportion of college graduates, in recent decades it has lost that advantage among the world's developed nations; today it ranks only 16th in its share of young adults with college degrees.
President Barack Obama has set a national goal of boosting U.S. graduation rates to 55 percent by 2020. But to achieve that target, schools across the country will have to adopt ambitious programs to support and retain students — like the one under way at Baltimore's Coppin State University.
Coppin has long had one of the lowest graduation rates of any school in the University System of Maryland. Fewer than 12 percent of those who entered as freshman in 2003 emerged with a diploma four years later. That's troubling by any standard, but unfortunately it isn't unusual; far too many two- and four-year institutions around the country lose a similar proportion of their students before graduation, with most of these young people leaving after their freshman year.
Students drop out of college for many reasons, including rising tuition costs and recession-induced loss of family income. But what causes the vast majority of students to drop out is that they arrive on campus academically unprepared to do college-level work. Not only have they not mastered basic reading and math skills — remedial courses in these subjects are pitched to the middle-school level or lower — they also often have trouble managing their time, establishing good study habits and seeking help from teachers or mentors when problems arise.
Recognizing the crucial importance of students' first year of college, educators at Coppin have developed an intensive summer orientation and acclimatization program for incoming freshman called the Summer Academic Success Academy. The six-week schedule of classes and activities runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day and is designed to give students a head start on the academic and social skills they will need to succeed in their studies as well as a support system they can call on throughout the year.
Giving students a strong support system is one of the most effective ways of helping these young people achieve their goals. At Coppin, many students come from urban high schools that lack strong college preparatory programs and from families without a tradition of college attendance. The summer success academy assigns every student to a group of 10 to 20 peers supervised by a faculty or staff mentor, whose job it is to shepherd each of them into the program and throughout their first year of classes.
Coppin officials realize that reaching their own goal of graduating at least 35 percent of this fall's class will be a tremendous challenge, and that the 55 percent rate by 2020 envisioned by President Obama will be even harder to achieve given where the school is starting from. But though the summer academy is only two years old, it's already showing modest results. This year, the proportion of freshmen who returned as sophomores rose slightly over the previous year, and educators hope the numbers will keep rising.
It's too early to tell whether Coppin's ambitious approach to raising its graduation rate will succeed. Three-quarters of the incoming freshmen still must take remedial courses before they begin college-level work, and statistically such students are at greatest risk of dropping out. Even those who successfully complete their catch-up classes may have to stay in school longer than the traditional four years in order to earn the 120 credits needed for graduation.
But experts say Coppin is on the right track toward helping its students achieve their goals and that educators there are finally taking the right steps to turn the school around. If they and their students can build on the progress that already has been made, Coppin's program could become a model for schools around the country attempting to meet the challenge laid out by the Obama administration, and in the process build a reputation for excellence in Maryland higher education.