Bleak College Graduation Rate Is Found

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2006

Only 9 percent of D.C. public school freshmen will complete college within five years of graduating from high school, a figure far below the national average, according to a report to be released today.

The report, commissioned by D.C. city and school officials, asserts that nine out of 10 of the freshmen will be confined to low-paying jobs because they never began college or gave up before obtaining a degree. It blames the problem largely on the school system for failing to prepare students but also on colleges for being unable to accommodate students' deficiencies.

Although the school system has had anecdotal evidence about how its students fare after graduation, this is the first time it has data to show how low the college retention rate is.

Labeling the situation a critical concern, D.C. leaders are developing programs, including ninth-grade academies and expanded dropout prevention efforts. They say they hope to double the number of college graduates. "This is an important piece of work for all of us," said Robert C. Rice, special assistant to Superintendent Clifford B. Janey.

"Our big focus over the last few years has been to strengthen academic programs from pre-K to grade 12," Rice said. The report will spur officials to ask deeper questions, such as, "Are we doing what we need to do in the fifth and sixth grade to prepare them for higher education?" Rice said.

The report, called "Double the Numbers for College Success: A Call to Action for the District of Columbia," is based on a five-year analysis beginning in 2001 that followed one group of students from ninth grade and a second group of high school graduates from their first year of college. There were 4,300 students in the ninth-grade group and 1,340 in the college group.

Nationwide, according to the study, 68 percent of students graduate from high school in five years; 48 percent enroll in college within 18 months of graduating from high school; and 23 percent receive degrees within five years of entering college.

But in the District, 43 percent graduate from high school in five years; 29 percent enroll in college within 18 months of graduating from high school; and 9 percent receive a degree within five years of enrolling.

The situation is far worse for students from certain segments of the group: One-third of the students from Wards 7 and 8 graduated from high school, and one in 20 received a college degree. Moreover, males were half as likely to graduate from college as females.

The data "confirmed what we already knew and will help us target what we will do in the future," said Juanita B. Wade, executive director of the D.C. Education Compact, a school improvement organization.

Officials from the Education Compact and a group called D.C. College Access Program are working with the system and the State Education Office on a long-term plan to address the problem. In the meantime, they said, they intend to boost the college graduation rate by using efforts and plans in place: ninth-grade academies, dropout prevention programs, more Advanced Placement and other college-preparatory courses and more counseling on college and financial aid options.

Moreover, city and school officials said they plan to press the 10 colleges and universities that enroll the majority of D.C. public school graduates to introduce more support services. The University of the District of Columbia enrolled 30 percent of the students in the research study but graduated only 9 percent of them in five years. Trinity University enrolled 3.6 percent and graduated 51 percent.

Trinity "has a comprehensive approach," said D.C. State Education Officer Deborah A. Gist.

"They assign advisers who are in your face. They put students in support groups. They have an open-door policy with professors," she said.

City and school officials acknowledged that they do not have a good handle on those high school graduates who bypass college for work, job training programs and or the military. They intend to study the issue.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company