Falling Through the Cracks - America's Achievement Gap

Next Generation Learning Challenges is a collaborative, multi-year initiative created to address barriers to educational innovation and the potential of technology to dramatically improve college readiness and completion in the United States. The organization, in partnership with EDUCAUSE and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,  provides investment capital to expand the use of proven and emerging learning technologies. The aim is to collect and share evidence of what is effective and to foster a community of innovators and adopters, hopefully resulting in a robust pool of solutions and greater institutional adoption and ultimately improve the quality of learning experiences in the United States. 

On Monday, NGLC announced their first cycle from their third wave of grants: $750,000 in pre-launch grants to five middle and high school developers that will open new schools in Fall 2012. The grantees were required to clearly demonstrate that their instructional models incorporate technology to personalize students' learning experiences and their business models can support sustainable expansion or adoption plans. This cycle focused specifically on breakthrough models for college readiness, and while reading their website and press release I found some startling information. 

First was the fact that only 71.7% of all students in the class of 2008 graduated. This is up about 6 percent from 1998 and the highest it's been since the mid 1980s, but still lower than the all time high, 77 percent in 1969. Knowing that adults 25 years and older without a high school diploma can expect to make $9,000 less a year than their peers with a diploma and $36,000 less than their peers with a post-secondary degree, I was flabbergasted. That got me started thinking about how many of those students will go on to college and graduate and how vital Next Generation Learning Challenges' focus on college preparedness really is.

High School Graduation

Let's take a look at 100 students from the class of 2008. Of these hundred students, we know that 49 are female, 51 male. The US government estimates that 55 of them will be white, 23 Hispanic, 16 Black, and 4 Asian, with one or two Pacific Islanders or American Indians. Not all of these students are as likely to graduate as others, however.

US high school graduation rates according to Education Week's Graduation by the Numbers
Student Group
Graduation Rate
Native American54%

At the end of their senior year, about 72 of these students will receive their high school diploma. Students in large cities are twice as likely to leave school before graduation than rural or non-urban students. More than one in four Hispanic youth drop out, and nearly half of those who do leave before the eighth grade. Indeed, more than half of students who drop out do so before the tenth grade, with 20 percent leaving before eighth, and 3 percent before fourth grade. 

High school dropouts make up nearly half of the prison population and heads of households on welfare. 20 percent were married, living as married, or divorced. Nearly 40 percent had a child or were expecting one.

As is to be expected, many had serious problems at school - 25 percent had changed schools two or more times, and almost 20 percent had been held back a grade, with almost 50 percent having had failed a course. Absenteeism was a serious problem, with almost half having missed at least 10 days of school, one third cutting class at least 10 times, and one quarter having at least 10 tardies. One third had been put on in-school suspension, suspended, or put on probation. Interestingly, only 15 percent of dropouts had been expelled.

Problems at home among high school dropouts were as common as one would expect; 12 percent had run away from home, 11 percent had been arrested, and 8 percent had spent time in a juvenile home or shelter. 

Among these dire numbers, there is hope. Education Week found a core set of characteristics that demonstrated consistent relationships to graduations rates:

  • District enrollment
  • Average high school size
  • Student-to-teacher ratio
  • Urbanized location
  • Racial composition
  • Poverty level
  • Race- and poverty-based segregation
  • Per-pupil spending
  • Share of expenditures devoted to instruction

151 urban peer districts were found with profiles likely to signal common underlying challenges and indeed, most of these 151 districts tended to have higher drop-out rates as predicted by the model. However, 21 of these school systems were found to be overachievers - they had beaten the odds and exceeded expected graduation rates for the class of 2007 by at least 10 percentage points. Administrators and educators in these systems are finding ways to reach students who normally would have fallen through the cracks.

High School Graduates Attending College

Unfortunately, according to the US Department Bureau of Labor Statistics only 68.1 percent of high school graduates enroll in college, whether two-year, four-year, or technical. That means only 49 out of our 100 students will make it to college.

Information on the motivation of students who graduate high school but choose not to attend college is difficult to find. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that income is a factor and some students are choosing to go straight into the work force. In 2010, the labor force participation rate for recent high school graduates enrolled in college was 40 percent, while among graduates not enrolled in college that rate was 76.6 percent.  

The cost of college plays into this disparity. Over the last 30 years, inflation has increased 2.5 fold, medical costs 6 fold, and college tuition has increased 10 fold - that's four times the rate of inflation. One year at a public university for an out-of-state resident has reached $50,000, far more than many families and students can afford without taking out massive loans.

The current recession and well-publicized difficulties among recent college graduates struggling to find employment seem not to be a contributing factor. Enrollments of new students in college increased 6.8 percent between 2006 and 2010. Community colleges accounted for a significant part of that increase, and that trend was driven by two groups of students: students who would have in a better economy chosen to attend other and costlier types of institutions, and those who would otherwise have joined the work force straight out of high school. 

College Completion

When we take a look at the rates of college completion, we find that students are still falling short. Only 42 percent of enrollees will complete their bachelors. 14 percent leave with an associates degree. Out of our 100 high school students, 28 will earn a post-secondary degree; 21 bachelors and 7 associates.

College preparedness is a huge factor for those who do enroll - 35 percent of students will drop out their freshman year. Statistics vary, but there are estimates that upwards of 60 percent of college students require at least one remedial course in either math, reading, or writing. The College Board found in their 2010 survey of students that:

  • 33 percent of freshmen said high school did not do a good job of preparing them well for college
  • 44 percent of college freshmen wish they had taken different high school courses
  • 26 percent wanted more research skills
  • 29 percent wanted more writing skills
  • 22 percent wanted more science skills
  • 37 percent wanted more job training
  • 40 percent wanted more math skills
  • 55 percent of college freshmen said college courses were more difficult than expected

Most state and city school systems have only recently started to collect data on how their high school graduates perform in college, but Florida has been grading its schools since 1999. Scores ranging from A to F are based on standardized tests, data on performance of graduates from high school on placement tests at colleges and universities, graduation rates, and student performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. These grades are tied to incentives and penalties for the schools; schools that earn an F in two out of four years will see school-choice options extended to its students.

Policy makers and researchers are hoping that educators in Florida can use this information to revamp their curriculum if they see their former students falling short in college. Others, though, worry that while the new data paint a more complete picture of how a high school is performing, it arrives too late for the students a school has already turned out. 

The other influencing factor on college completion rates is cost. Most students take at least six years to complete their degrees; an extra year can tack on $16,140 in tuition, fees, and materials at a four-year public university. Add a year of lost income and consider the yearly cost of a private university and the real price can range from $45,000 to $90,000. Students also may end up taking an extra year when required courses aren't available when they need them. One unavailable prerequisite course can cost a student an entire year. Because of gaps in federal statistics, students who enroll part-time or transfer are nearly invisible. About four out of every ten public college students attend part time - mostly because they have to earn a living while completing school - and no more than a quarter of part-time students ever graduate. 

Job Prospects

The Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that by 2018, the economy will create 46.8 million job openings - 13.8 million brand-new jobs and 33 million "replacement jobs," positions vacated by workers who have retired or permanently left their occupations. Nearly two-thirds of these 46.8 million jobs - some 62 percent - will require workers with at least some college education. Only 38 percent will require workers with just a high school diploma or less. 

How does that relate to our 100 students from the class of 2011? Our students' chances will look something like this: 

Labor force distribution according to the Center on Education and the Workforce
Demand in Job Market
Distribution in Population
Ratio of Jobs to Workers
Graduate degree10%3%*3.3 : 1
Bachelor's degree23%17%1.35 : 1
Associate's degree12%7%1.7 : 1
Some college17%22%0.77 : 1
High school diploma28%23%1.2 : 1
High school dropouts10%28%0.35 : 1


These numbers mean that, as in the current and past recessions, those without college bear the brunt of unemployment. Today, the unemployment rate among those with less than 4 years of high school is 10.1 percent; among those with their bachelor's degree or better, the rate is only 2.1 percent.

Interestingly, those with associate's degrees will face less competition for jobs than those with bachelor's, and those with a diploma will face less competition than those with some college. However, these comparisons are only true across peer groups; more likely, groups facing stiff competition for their level of education will compete with those who are in lower achievement groups. If the 23 percent of students with some college who cannot find appropriate employment compete for positions requiring only a diploma, the consequences for the already over-stressed and under-employed group of high school dropouts could be severe. 

Next Generation Learning Challenges goal is to ensure that 80 percent of US students - particularly low-income and minority young people - graduate from high school prepared for college, and to double the number of low-income young adults who earn a post-secondary degree or credential by age 26. In the weeks ahead we'll take a look at their grant winners and how they are working towards the future success of our youth.

Further reading: 

* - Accurate statistics on the number of US-born undergraduates continuing on to complete Master's degrees or their Doctorates are difficult to come by as 30% of Americans with doctoral degrees are immigrants