Retro Baltimore: 50 things we miss

The 55 percent solution

Maryland is already one of the best educated states in the nation, ranking at or near the top when it comes to the percentage of residents with college and post-graduate degrees. But state leaders, looking at an increasingly competitive, knowledge-based global economy, think that's not going to be nearly good enough. About 45 percent of the state's adults have at least an associate's degree now, but state leaders decided in 2009 that it should aim to bump that up to 55 percent by 2025.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission made that goal the centerpiece of its quadrennial report, which it released last week. The report, called Ready Maryland, outlines the reasons for the goal and offers much discussion of broad policy objectives and long-term strategies. But it has little in the way of details for how schools are supposed to overcome the huge hurdles that stand in the way of turning those goals into reality. It's an aspirational document that's long on generalities but distressingly short on specifics.

Here's why that matters: As the report rightly acknowledges, Maryland's changing demographics pose one of the biggest obstacles to producing more college grads. For one thing, the number of high school graduates entering college for the first time is expected to remain flat or even decline slightly over the next couple of years. But the larger challenge will come from the state's growing population of low-income and minority students, who will form an ever larger proportion of Maryland's young people but whose college retention and graduation rates traditionally have lagged significantly behind those of their more affluent white peers.

The commission's report suggests the income, racial and ethnic achievement gaps can be closed through innovative outreach and recruitment strategies, teaching and instruction methods, financial aid systems and academic support services. But it doesn't spell out what those efforts should look like or how they will be paid for. More fundamentally, it doesn't really address the fact that the achievement gap actually begins long before students enter college, which is why so many students arrive on campus needing remedial courses in English, math and reading before they can begin to earn college credits. That not only increases the cost of higher education but leads many students to drop out from discouragement over their slow progress.

As the state agency charged with overseeing higher education, MHEC can call for closing achievement gaps and implementing the higher Common Core standards in the state's K-12 schools to produce more college-ready high school graduates. But it can't make any of those things happen itself, and there may be only so much the state's postsecondary system can do to play catch-up. Ultimately, it's going to take legislation or executive action to put some meat on the bones of MHEC's lofty ambitions. That is what is needed if Maryland is to create the "55 percent" it needs to thrive, and the state's students who want to become part of that distinguished company deserve no less.

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