The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After the scandals, what happens to public school students in college?

Students graduate from high school last year in the District. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Patricia McGuire is president of  Trinity Washington University.

What’s next for high school students in the District of Columbia and Prince George’s County?

In the wake of scandals over attendance and graduation requirements in both systems, what will happen to the seniors eagerly awaiting college acceptance letters? If and when they get to college, how will they fare?

The ouster of Antwan Wilson as D.C. Public Schools chancellor after his own ethics scandal should not obscure the still-urgent need to address accountability defects that allowed students to get diplomas even though sizable numbers racked up massive absences and could not meet graduation requirements.

FBI, U.S. Education Department investigating D.C. public schools Ballou graduation scandal

As president of Trinity Washington University, which enrolls substantial numbers of students from both public school systems, I am angered but not surprised to read the detailed reports of the ethical and accountability failures in both systems — failures that are occurring in school systems nationwide.

I’m not surprised because we see the behavioral patterns that start in lower education come into college: A student who has not been to class in high school on a regular basis is unlikely to attend her college classes with greater fervor.

But the sad, almost inevitable result is that the absent student will flunk out of college — attendance is one of the primary markers for success in the first year of college and for ultimate completion of the college degree.

Beyond not having the academic discipline of attending class, students who skip a lot of high school also lack essential knowledge and skills required for collegiate success. That sets them up for failure, a need to repeat courses or engage in remediation, and, invariably, lengthens their time to degree, which translates into more tuition costs and lost wages.

Many students wind up dropping out because the pressure to catch up is overwhelming.

Colleges that take the risk of enrolling large numbers of students from public school systems whose diplomas are unreliable wind up being criticized when graduation rates are not the same as more elite institutions. But the problem has roots in high school, as the local scandals illustrate.

Before a graduation scandal made headlines, teachers at D.C.’s Ballou High School raised an alarm

The real damage in these scandals, the utter human tragedy, is the impact on our young people in the region.

The scandals cast doubt and suspicion on the worth of the diplomas recently issued and on the academic records and reputations of students about to graduate.

Some colleges might have second thoughts about admitting such students. Let’s hope not.

Colleges and universities in the Washington region can do something counterintuitive to address this crisis in confidence and academic integrity: Rather than stepping back from engagement with students from troubled school systems, we can welcome them to our campuses with programming designed to teach these students better academic habits.

We can also work more closely with the system leaders and with parents, principals and teachers to communicate collegiate expectations more clearly, and work together on solutions.

At Trinity, where more than half of the full-time undergraduate students are from the District and Prince George’s County, we have developed effective programs and services that focus on preparing students for collegiate success.

We take attendance in every class. And we go looking for students who fail to show up.

We provide advisers, tutors, counselors and an extensive network of support services to help students focus on their studies.

Maryland officials vote to conduct investigation of graduation rates in Prince George’s County

As leaders in both jurisdictions have pointed out, the problem of student attendance is complex.

At Trinity, we know that students miss class for many reasons outside of our control, and often beyond their control as well: Taking care of family members is a big reason, including their own children. Work obligations loom large, with some families dependent upon the income of the teenage worker. Many students also have health issues that remain unaddressed for years but that impede their academic progress. And, sadly, too many teens are coping with the pervasive effects of violence at home and in their neighborhoods.

Local leaders have laid out plans to address the scandals and get back on track with effective high school education.

D.C. public schools leader to resign after skirting school-assignment rules

Schools, colleges and universities in the Washington region should join forces with regional leaders to take a hard look at the social factors that contribute to so much absenteeism and that undermine academic achievement.

And colleges and universities need to make it clear to city, county and state leadership that they cannot ask us to accept diplomas that are meaningless.

The systems must make change to help the students get back on track.

The students must not suffer because the systems let them down. But neither can our institutions of higher education continue to be expected to clean up the public high schools’ mess.