Completing the college years

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Monday, December 21, 2009

TOO OFTEN, colleges and universities have blamed the poor performance of low-income and minority students on the preparation they received in high schools. Basically, their message was: Send us better students, and we'll show better results.

So it's nothing sort of a breakthrough that leaders of half the country's public colleges have embarked on an initiative to close racial and socioeconomic gaps in enrollment and graduation. Data from the Access to Success Initiative released this month paint a gloomy picture of low-income and minority students: Far too few enroll in college, and even fewer make it to graduation. Consider, for example, that 45 percent of low-income and minority students entering as freshmen in 1999 had received bachelor's degrees six years later, compared with 57 percent of other students.

Particularly disturbing were the findings about students entering two-year colleges, ostensibly a pathway to higher education for many who are underprepared: Only 7 percent of minority students who entered community college received bachelor's degrees within 10 years.

The analysis, conducted by the Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads, is valuable for its realistic look at the issues. It's also a call to action, with 24 public college and university systems pledging to halve, by 2015, the gaps in enrollment and completion that separate minority and low-income students from others. Each system now has a baseline from which to operate.

"This is not just research for research's sake," said Kati Haycock of the Education Trust. Key to the effort is the ability of schools to share ideas that work, such as redesigning freshman courses to provide more support for students, or doing outreach to African American churches to attract students. It's encouraging that at a time of real budget challenges, these schools are not shirking from their responsibility to ensure success for all its students.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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