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Getting Across the Finish Line in Education

by Scott Bittle

Friday, June 10th, 2011

There's good news this week on getting more young people through high school and bad news on getting them beyond it.

The "Diplomas Count" report, produced by Education Week and Editorial Projects in Education, found high school graduation rates have increased significantly after two years of decline. The high school graduation rate is 72 percent, a jump of three points in just a year. But 1.2 million students still fail to earn diplomas. And a staggering number of those dropouts, fully one in five, come from just 25 school districts, almost all major urban school systems.

Those diplomas are crucial if students are to get the post-secondary education they increasingly need to get ahead. While that's usually been defined as a four-year college, in fact there are many other options, such as community colleges and trade schools, and the report looks at the challenges facing those students.

One of those challenges, of course, is money. In a separate report, The Education Trust concludes the average low-income family must pay or borrow a much bigger share of its annual income 72 percent -- to send a child to a four-year college. By contrast, middle-class families only need to contribute 27 percent of their income, and high-income families 14 percent.

Young people who don't complete postsecondary education are more likely to be lower-income and they're mostly facing the financial burden on their own, according to Public Agenda's With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them study. Nearly 6 in 10 students in our study who left higher education without graduating say they had to pay their own college costs, rather than being able to count on help from their families. About 7 in 10 of those who leave school report that they did not have scholarships or financial aid, compared with about 4 in 10 of those who graduate.

And 3 in 10 of those who didn't graduate said they have college loans, giving them the worst of both worlds: no diploma, but still with loans to pay.

In the end, young people told us the biggest factor in failing to get a diploma is the difficult juggling act they face in handling school, work and family obligations. Frequently, something's got to give, and the thing that often gives is completing school.

Our statistics tell the story, but this tale is something young people can tell themselves. Have a look at this video which Public Agenda produced in partnership with Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and the Pathways Project:



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