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Boston Public High School Graduates Struggle To Finish College

Report prompts concerns about whether Boston public high school graduates are college-ready and if colleges are doing enough to help students graduate.

While Boston has one of the highest college enrollment rates in the nation, less than half of all those who earn a high school diploma graduate from college within six years, according to a recent report released by the Boston Private Industry Council and the Center for Labor Market Studies.

The report, titled “Getting to the Finish Line: A Seven Year Longitudinal Study of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Class of 2000,” examined the overall high school graduation and enrollment rates of Boston high school graduates at colleges and universities. The study found that students who stayed closer to home, opting to attend a public college instead of a private institution, had a graduation rate of only about 25 percent, though private institutions in the city, like Northeastern University, tended to boast much higher numbers.

The findings from the study have sent political and educational leaders scrambling to find new ways to increase retention efforts, particularly at area public colleges like University of Massachusetts Boston, where only 20.7 percent of the 150 students from the class of 2000 earned a degree by the spring of 2007.

“We are proud that Boston sends more graduates to college than just about any city in the country, but we must do more to ensure success once they are there,” says Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has called for a 50 percent increase in the college graduation rate for college enrollees from the BPS Class of 2009, and a 100 percent increase — doubling the college graduation rate — for college enrollees from the BPS Class of 2011.

Menino also says he wants high schools to double the number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes in public high schools and wants to raise the average SAT score to about 1650, to ensure that students are academically prepared once they arrive at college. For students who attend college in Boston, Menino says that he wants to create more job and internship opportunities for high school graduates, an initiative that has won the financial support of the Boston Foundation, which has agreed to donate $1 million aimed at assisting these retention efforts.

Officials have also aggressively targeted Hispanic and Black high school students who continue to lag far behind their White and Asian counterparts. For example, of the 1,472 Black students who earned a high school diploma from the Boston Public Schools in 2000, only 249 of those students received a college degree by the spring of 2007. Similarly, only 74 of the 581 Hispanic high school graduates earned a college degree during that same time period.

Some educators at public institutions across the Boston area seem less concerned that students enrolled at their institutions tend to take a longer time to complete their degree. They point to national data that indicate that fewer than half of the students who enroll in college in this country graduate within six years.

“We feel that on the retention issue, we do not do as well in the numbers, but we know that we are doing a good job as an institution,” says Lisa Johnson, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at UMass Boston — the city’s only public university. “Retention numbers only look at freshmen and we measure our success at how we change the lives of all of our students — traditional and nontraditional students.”

Johnson points out that any comparison between UMass Boston and the wealthier colleges and universities in the area is unfair because the schools tend to service a different population. UMass Boston, for example, does not have any residential dormitories on campus and enrolls a large number of transfer students who often start their college careers at one of the local community colleges. A number of students, like Sherryann Hawkesworth who graduated from UMass Boston last December as an honors student, took 17 years to complete her degree because of family and personal obligations.

“We help students get back in when they need to get back in and finish their coursework,” says Dr. Joan Becker, vice provost for academic support services at UMass Boston. “Still, we can always do a better job.”

At Boston area public community colleges, which have an open-admissions policy, the issue of retention is much more difficult. With recent state and federal budget cuts, some administrators say that they are having a difficult time funding additional support services for struggling students, a problem that is not much of a concern for private institutions.

Of the 80 Boston students who graduated in 2000 and matriculated at Northeastern University — the city’s most popular private school — 82.5 percent received degrees by the spring of 2007.

Ronne P. Turner, the dean of admissions, says that the university is committed to attracting and retaining students — particularly minority students from the Boston area.

“We provide good academic and social support and we try to remove the financial barriers and make sure that our students have the academic support to transition from one level to another,” says Turner.

Turner says that targeted scholarships for Boston’s high school graduates have made Northeastern an attractive option for many local students. When students arrive on campus, there are additional support services, including centers on campus that cater specifically to the needs of Black and Hispanic students.

“It is our goal as an institution to admit and graduate students who will be successful at the university,” says Turner. “We are pleased with the work that we have done, but a lot more work still needs to be done.”

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