Beyond High School Diplomas: Educators Aim Towards College Completion

Nationally, just 18 percent of all 9th graders complete four year degrees within 10 years. There needs to be a real sense of urgency as we move forward in creating and sustaining greater college access and completion for all students, which is why it is so important that we address this issue at the federal, state and local levels.

As we prepare students to succeed as adults, we know that most will need advanced learning beyond their high school diplomas to get good jobs. For some, that may mean completing professional certificate programs. Others will go on to earn advanced degrees. Schools and community partners need to track and support students’ completion of advanced learning beyond high school as the new aspiring standard for public education.

This was the most important message that we took away from the “On Track to College Completion” forum hosted by the U.S .Department of Education’s regional office in Chicago on Feb. 25.  

As educators from Rockford Public Schools 205, we had the chance to connect with leaders of other school districts and partner organizations from 17 communities spanning Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Led by Greg Darnieder, senior advisor for college access to Secretary Duncan, we discussed current innovations and practices for college access and completion.

This forum began with an authentic example of how Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has progressed toward that new standard. The district’s efforts over the past nine years have led to a near-doubling of its percentage of 9th graders earning a four-year college degree within 10 years of starting high school, according to research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (CCSR). Darnieder, Jenny Nagaoka, deputy director of CCSR, and Aarti Dhupelia, chief officer for college and career success for CPS, discussed how the district’s progress came about, and what it means for other schools and students throughout the country.

Since 2011, RPS 205 has worked with community partners to redesign our five high schools into college and career academies that are better preparing students for college and the workforce. This effort is beginning to reap great results: More 9th graders are on track to graduate in 4 years, attendance has improved and graduation rates have increased.

The session helped us make some much needed connections. For example, RPS 205 is working with Alignment Rockford, a community partner, to develop a site-based scholarship program modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise, which funds college for Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates. This forum gave us the opportunity to meet Janice Brown, founder of the Kalamazoo Promise and get her direct insights about starting a similar initiative.

The session was also a catalyst for sharing information about effective college access and completion resources. They included data sources like the National Student Clearinghouse and the Illinois Department of Employment Security, which may be used to collect and monitor college completion rates, as well as the federal GEAR UP program, which helps low-income middle and high school students to enter and success in post-secondary education.

This is very rewarding work, but it’s not easy. We’re all experiencing some of the same challenges to prepare our students for success in the 21st century economy. Exchanges like this one are vital to leverage best practices and to collaborate to develop new strategies.

David Carson is Executive Director of College and Career Readiness for Rockford Public Schools 205 and Janice Hawkins is Principal of Guilford High School in Rockford Public Schools 205.

2 Comments

  1. It’s staggering to think of all the obstacles throughout a student’s tenure that will prevent them from completing college. As a previous school counselor at a urban high school and currently an independent college and career counselor, I think the career piece is key to the successful completion of college. It’s the “carrot on the stick” so to speak and with career academies offering certification or, at the very least, exposure it creates an interest that Algebra, Biology, or English otherwise doesn’t offer. So kuddos to you David and Janice. You’re community, parents, and students, I’m sure, are thankful for all that you do.

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