Over 50% of Boston Graduates Fail to Earn College Diplomas

07 Sep 2011

written by Dave Copeland


Photo by Lewis Wickes.

This week, millions of American kids head back to schools that rate their success on a wide range of factors, including how many of those kids eventually enroll in four-year colleges. But until recently, most schools have avoided taking a look at how well those kids do in college.

That is slowly changing. Two years ago, a report that found more than half of Boston Public School graduates that went on to college failed to earn a diploma. That has prompted city and school officials to partner with local universities to implement programs aimed at helping improve graduation rates. The programs include everything from summer enrichment programs for students entering their first year of college to the creation of “learning communities” to offer students support once they arrive on campus.

“States are making this enormous investment in kids who drop out,” Mark Schneider, one of the study’s co-authors, told the Boston Globe. “It’s crazy. These numbers should be a wake up call.”

About 37 million people, or 20 percent of the workforce, have some college credit but no degree, according to the American Institute for Research report. The impact is huge: Massachusetts students who started college in 2002 and still had not graduated by 2010 would have earned a total $104 million in income and paid $15 million more in federal and state taxes (California topped the list, with $386 million in lost wages and $57 million in lost taxes).

Nationally, the problem amounts to $4.5 billion lost in earnings a tax revenue, and that only covers the 493,000 students who started college in 2002 but did not graduate. Many of the students took out loans that are theoretically more difficult to repay without the higher wages a college degree would have helped them secure.

The new push to look at how public schools are preparing students is a shift from the traditional thinking, in which much of the blamed is placed on the students. Noted Mellon Foundation researcher William Bowen was commissioned to study the dismal, six-year college radiation rate of 54 percent in 2005 that started the shift.

“You walk into a high school and 50 percent of the kids aren’t graduating, people say ’What’s the matter with this place? Get me the principal. Get me the school board. Let’s put this place in receivership,”’ Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, said at the time Bowen’s findings were released. “But people walk into (a college) and say ‘What’s the matter with these students? We gave them a chance to go to college.”’

African-American and Hispanic students are most at risk for dropping out of college, as well as students who are the first in their family to attend college and students who do not speak English as their primary language. Students drop out for reasons beyond preparation, including a need to support family members by working and academic and social expectations that don’t match up with reality once they enroll.

What is clear is that students who drop out of college are often worse off than if they had went straight into the workforce after high school graduation, thanks to the high cost of repaying student loans. And few will return to college to finish their degree after dropping out: in 2005, just 12 percent of undergraduates in the U.S. were “reentry” students.

Among the specific initiatives Boston officials are hoping to implement to reduce the number of college dropouts:

  • Better preparation of students. At local community colleges, a feeder for low-income, Boston Public Schools graduates, as many as 75 percent of incoming students need two to five remedial classes. The courses emphasize college basics, like writing papers and better study habits.
  • More, on-campus, part-time jobs. Many students need to continue working through college. At UMass-Boston, another popular destination for BPL graduates, the administration is trying to create more jobs so students won’t have to leave campus to work a few hours in between classes.
  • Simplified financial aid information. Most of the 25 colleges participating in the Boston initiative are including fliers in financial aid packages that make it easier for students and parents to understand what aid is available.
  • Targeting at-risk students. The schools have partnered with Success Boston to offer counseling to students who seem at risk of dropping out. About 75 percent of college drop outs do so in their first two years.

For students entering college in 2002. Source: American Institutes for Research

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About the author

Dave Copeland is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Blood & Volume: Inside New York's Israeli Mafia." Before turning to long-form journalism and online writing in 2004, Copeland was an investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, where he covered economic development and city finance. Copeland was part of a three-reporter team that predicted the city of Pittsburgh would go bankrupt a full three years before city officials acknowledged the extent of the municipality's fiscal woes. In addition to writing for the Boston Globe and other publications, Copeland teaches college journalism and writing classes in Massachusetts.

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