by Joe Nathan
It’s time for school boards to add a new high school graduation requirement. All students (except those with major mental handicaps) should apply to some form of higher education. Many of the high schools showing the strongest success with low and moderate income do this. They insist that students apply to a two- or four-year program before earning a high school diploma.
I am NOT saying that everyone should attend a four-year college. Some of the best paying, and most satisfying jobs require a two-year degree. Studies often find that students who complete 2-4 year degrees don’t just earn more. Those with either a two of four-year degree are more satisfied with their lives, and healthier than those who don’t. Here are a few examples:
• Frederick Douglass (public) High School in Harlem, New York City makes applying to five colleges or universities one of its requirements for graduation. About 90% of its students graduate from high school within four years of entering, compared to a citywide average of about 50 percent. In June 2006, 120 students graduated from Frederick Douglass. All of them went to college. They received more than $5 million in scholarship offers.
• Eighty percent of Yes Prep students, a charter public school in Houston, are from low-income families, and 95% are either Hispanic or African American. Students must apply to at least one four-year college in order to graduate. The school’s graduation rate is much higher than the Houston Public School average. Yes Prep students have been accepted at 216 colleges and universities, and earned more than $17.5 million in scholarships and financial aid. Seventy-eight percent of YES alumni have graduated or are still enrolled in a four-year college.
• The Met School in Providence, Rhode Island requires students to complete at least 3 college applications before graduating. More than 80% of its 2007 graduates are enrolled in college. Approximately 74% of Met alumni who enrolled in college are either still there or have graduated. This despite the fact that most Met students are the first in their family to attend college.
Requiring students to apply to college sends very clear messages about expectations and goals. Graduation requirements show what’s most important.
Unquestionably, college costs can be daunting. But when students are thinking from the very first day of high school that they must apply to some form of higher education, they and their families understand that they need to be saving.
Equally important, the amount of scholarship money available is growing. Legislators at the national or state level recognize having better-educated people is one of the keys to economic growth.
A requirement like this means a school may have to adjust the way it works with students. Some of the schools mentioned above have adopted advisor-advisee systems, so that each student more individual attention, along with assistance from a well-trained counselor.
People often talk vaguely about “increasing expectations.” This expectation isn’t vague. And it appears to be very valuable.
Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota.