State of Education: Shrink the College Diploma Gap

In this recent LinkedIn series, professionals debated the state – and future – of their industry. Read and share my post on the State of Education directly from LinkedIn here

When it comes to beliefs and perceptions, public education in the U.S. has progressed since I started my career as an educator nearly 25 years ago. Back then, when a class of inner-city students in Los Angeles taught by Jaime Escalante achieved great results in AP Calculus, it was such a big deal that they made a movie out of it — “Stand and Deliver.” In the years since, we’ve realized that it is not a Hollywood movie script for classes – or schools – of children from low-income backgrounds to achieve at high levels. Today there are hundreds of public schools – both charter and district schools – where students from low-income families are proving that demography is not destiny.

Without putting on rose-colored glasses, we can celebrate the progress in public education. There has never been a greater amount of talent in the field of PreK-12 public education, with an influx of high achievers entering teaching and joining skilled veteran educators who have been in the field for decades. More students are graduating from high school than ever before, with a record graduation rate of 81 percent. We’re also seeing an increase in college matriculation, especially among students of color. In just under two decades, the rate of Hispanic students enrolling in college has tripled.

There is still, of course, much more we all need to do, fix, and accomplish. Too many children remain in schools where they are not able to meet their full potential. On an international scale, U.S. students’ proficiency in math and reading has fallen: the U.S. currently ranks below average in math among the world’s most developed countries, and we are two spots behind Russia in overall math and reading results.

An equally alarming but lesser-known red flag in American education today is the fact that more students get to college, but fewer are getting through college to earn their degrees. Only about a third of Americans have earned a four-year college degree by their late 20s. For young people growing up in poverty, the graduation rate drops to 9 percent. While the increasingly high price-tag of college no doubt has prohibited many young people from pursuing or completing a degree, it is not the only contributing factor. Some colleges and universities do better than others in retaining their low income students, indicating that money is not the sole barrier. Likewise, some PreK-12 school systems do better in preparing their kids for the academic and life challenges of college. We need to understand why.

At KIPP, the four-year college graduation rates for all KIPP middle school completers 10 years later is 45 percent, which is more than four times the rate of their low-income peers. These numbers do not satisfy us; rather, they show us what is possible. We are aspiring for a college completion rate of 75 percent, which is the graduation rate for kids living in the highest economic quartile.

Though there are struggles, we need to keep raising the bar. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” I believe we are ready to handle the increase in international competition and shifting demands from the U.S. economy, the increase in higher education costs, and the crippling gap between rich and poor. In my view, traditional public school educators today are working within a K-12 mindset, when they could be viewing public education as a PreK-16 system that propels students to succeed in college and in life. With that end in mind, KIPP has formed partnerships with more than 70 colleges and universities aimed at increasing college completion rates for low-income students. By working together, college and public school educators can put in place the kinds of supports and systems that make a real difference.

In higher education, there are a number of universities that are blazing a trail when it comes to graduation rates for first generation college students. Ouachita Baptist University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Franklin & Marshall are among a growing number of colleges and universities that have created peer support programs aimed at easing the transition to college for first generation students. These schools are establishing an impressive track record of retaining and graduating all of their students, no matter their income-level.

We have made important progress in the past 25 years, but during those same years, the goal posts have moved down the field. It is no longer enough to measure success by the percent of kids passing an 8th grade reading test or earning a high school diploma. Rather, the challenge of our day is for leaders in PreK-12 and higher education to work together to shrink the college-diploma gap between rich and poor. When that happens, we truly will have reason to celebrate.

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