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More Baltimore graduates attend two-year colleges, where they are less likely to earn degree

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.

The consortium also found that only 5.8 percent of those who started at a two-year college earned a degree in six years compared with 34 percent of those at four-year-colleges. The report — the most comprehensive look to date at college acceptance and completion trends for city school graduates — used data from the class of 2004, tracking degree completion through 2010.

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.

"We see that the greatest barrier to college is money," Spilman said. "The cost of college is shutting out the really low-income kids from four-year-colleges."

The organization commits to supporting students for five years because the time it takes to attain a college degree also has increased. Longer enrollments also factor into the decision of where students go to college because many can't afford an extra year.

Baltimore-area community colleges contend that they provide a more affordable alternative for students who want and deserve a chance at a college education while also providing a transition into four-year institutions for students who are ill-prepared for higher-level courses.

Mark McColloch, vice president of instruction for the Community College of Baltimore County rejected the report's suggestion that guidance counselors should be pushing more of the city's high school students to attend four-year-institutions, including those with the most selective admissions criteria.

McColloch said that a large number of incoming students at community colleges aren't prepared — around 89 percent of all students who enrolled in CCBC in 2010 needed remediation. He added that hundreds of CCBC students go on to four-year colleges and universities every year.

The college had a 5 percent degree completion rate among its city students from 2004 to 2010, according to the consortium's report. McColloch said that statistic reflects the abilities of the students who attend the school and doesn't necessarily reflect on the school's programs.

"The achievement is a function of background … not a function of someone doing something wrong, whether it be in college or high school, to Baltimore City students," McColloch said. "It's that students who are more at-risk come to two-year schools. And we are better prepared to deal with someone from that kind of background."

Kiana Harvey, a 2009 graduate of Edmondson-Westside High School, wanted to attend Howard University, but fell 30 points shy of the school's SAT requirement.

In the two years since graduation, she has obtained an associate's degree from Baltimore City Community College — her "back-up plan"— where she received a full scholarship. She was accepted into an honors program, traveled to Shanghai and emerged better prepared for a more rigorous program, she said.

She is now pursuing her bachelor's degree at the University of Baltimore.

"I'm happy with the process I took to get where I am today," Harvey said. "I wouldn't change any of the decisions I made because I made them for me, and what was best for me."

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