Md. aims to shrink college grad gap

The Baltimore Sun

The University System of Maryland is joining schools in 17 other states in pledging to reduce by at least half the gap in college success that separates minority and low-income students from the rest of the postsecondary population.

Yesterday, Maryland's college system took its first formal step in the national initiative with a summit at the University of Baltimore, at which data were presented highlighting the wide and persistent disparity in graduation rates among Maryland's black and needy college students. The goal is to halve the gap by 2015.

"This gap is all the more alarming because our state is experiencing a huge demographic shift," system Chancellor William E. Kirwan told about 150 campus administrators, politicians and federal officials. "The groups most under-represented with bachelor's degrees are the very groups with the fastest-growing representation in the high schools."

The U.S. undersecretary of education, Sara Martinez Tucker, who is the administration's top higher-education official, praised the Maryland system for its candor and suggested some solutions, as did national experts and representatives from state universities and K-12 public schools. But a considerable part of the daylong conference was spent digesting alarming statistics designed to underscore the magnitude of the problem.

Among the data:

Only 46 percent of black freshmen who entered Maryland's university system in 2000 graduated within six years from any system campus, compared with a graduation rate of 64 percent for all students. The gap in graduation rates declined by 3 percentage points over 11 years, though all ethnic groups are completing their degrees at a slightly higher rate.

There is an 18 percentage point gap between the graduation rates of high-income and low-income students at the state's research universities in College Park and Catonsville. At other majority-white campuses - in Towson, Salisbury and Frostburg - low- income students trail by 12 percent.

While the graduation gap between white women and black women has been "essentially" eliminated at the majority-white colleges, Kirwan said, African-American males still sharply trail their white counterparts.

Kirwan and others painted a sobering picture of the state's future if these trends continue.

"You can imagine the economic decline that will occur, not just for individuals but for our state as a whole, if we maintain this proportion of minorities with degrees," he said. "The average income in Maryland will decline, and that's true across the country."

By 2014, more than 50 percent of Maryland's high school graduates each year will be minorities, the vast majority of them African-Americans, according to system data.

The purpose of yesterday's conference was to gather ideas about what Maryland can do to try to increase college enrollment among low-income and minority students and to improve their academic performance. Proposals floated by conference participants included increasing need-based financial aid, simplifying the federal financial aid application process, and swaddling high-risk freshmen with mentoring, academic advising and other counseling programs that have been shown to reduce college dropout rates.

Tucker said many states are not producing enough college graduates from all backgrounds.

"Thirty-two states don't have enough young adults in the college pipeline to replace college- educated retiring baby boomers," she said. "Forty-four percent of Americans don't believe they have the education they need for the jobs they want."

Low-income and minority students are far more likely to delay enrolling in college, work to finance their studies, be the first in their families to strive for a bachelor's degree and attend underperforming high schools, experts say. These factors are all associated with higher college dropout rates.

Nationally, about two-thirds of college-bound students are not ready for college-level math, according to Tucker. Fewer than 10 percent of African-American students complete a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum in high school, she said.

Some have suggested that low academic standards at many high schools are a key reason for college dropout rates. But Tucker pleaded with her audience to "end the blame game" that often characterizes discussion about the higher-education achievement gap.

Kirwan said better education in high schools was essential to improving college attendance and success, but he also urged the conference participants to accept responsibility for the students under their care. "We own this problem," he said. "These are our students. We admitted all of these students in the belief that they would be successful, and too many of them are not."

Baltimore City public schools CEO Andres Alonso joined in the self-reproach, decrying the fact that only nine of the city's 31 high schools offer Advanced Placement courses, which are designed to introduce high school students to college-level work. "I need to put Advanced Placement courses in the other 22 high schools," he said.

Just 14 percent of students who graduated from Baltimore's public high schools in 2001 had earned a college degree five years later. And among those who graduated in the spring of 2006, just 44 percent enrolled in a two- or four-year college that fall, compared with a national college enrollment rate of 66 percent. Alonso said those statistics mirrored urban school districts across the country.

Yesterday, he set a goal of having 2,000 to 3,000 city students in "dual enrollment" programs with local colleges within four years so they can get some college experience before graduating. Currently, 129 city students are enrolled in such programs, he said. About 4,200 students graduated from city high schools last year.

After listening to several presentations, Tucker praised Maryland for inviting public scrutiny and attention to its achievement gap. "We're not saying there are bad campuses. We're just saying the system of higher education is broken," she said. "The fact that Maryland is willing to acknowledge we have an issue here, without taking any kind of hurt feelings ... is really refreshing."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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