Falling rates of participation seen at colleges


Study: A commission points to a crisis in access to higher education as the country tries to compete in the global economy.

October 05, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

TWO NEW education reports were vying for the media's attention last week.

One found that the average American kid does 19 minutes of homework each school night. The other found that the U.S. faces a crisis in college access: Though enrollment is expected to increase by 13 percent nationwide over the next dozen years -- and by a projected 48 percent in Maryland -- a number of states are struggling with falling rates of college participation.

Homework, of course, got the lion's share of media attention. In part, that's because the findings shot big holes in the argument that there's too much homework assigned in American schools, so much so that children are literally sick of it.

But given the choice, I took the college participation news conference. Homework is not in crisis, I figured, but every state in the nation faces a crisis in college access.

For example, according to the report from the Education Commission of the States, Maryland is going to have to find room for 101,000 additional students by 2015 if it wants to match the best-performing states. In Maryland, about 36 percent of people over 18 go to a college or university. In New England states like Rhode Island, the college-going rate is about 50 percent.

Why is closing this "participation gap" so important? Because in a worldwide knowledge-based economy, a high school diploma has lost much of its value. It's "not a ticket to a middle-class lifestyle in the 21st century," said Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, who looks at his state's 34 percent college-enrollment rate in terms of dollars and cents.

High school graduates earn $8,000 to $13,000 a year less than those holding associate (community college) and bachelor's degrees. Warner wants to work on both the input and output sides of higher education. He has proposed that high school seniors who graduate with good grades be credited for a semester at a Virginia public college. This plan, called "senior year plus," would reduce by an eighth the tuition for a four-year student and is expected to propel more students into college, regardless of family income.

On the output side, Warner would work hard at keeping students in college. He figures if he can add 10,000 college graduates a year, taxes on their increased earnings would pay for "senior year plus" and other incentives.

Virginia and Maryland are caught in a double whammy. While a sour economy has forced cuts in college and university budgets and sharp tuition increases, more people are in the higher-education pipeline. Even community colleges, those distinctly American schools that take pride in their open doors, are limiting enrollment as the crisis deepens.

The education commission report complements an earlier study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It listed the U.S. 13th among developed nations in college-going in 2000, a precipitous drop from its first-place ranking only 10 years earlier.

A few policy-makers like Warner -- but only a few -- have noticed and are trying to do something about it.

Regional group studies suburban poverty spread

The David Rusk study for the Abell Foundation on the hardening racial and economic segregation in Central Maryland schools came as no surprise to those who have been keeping tabs. One of them is Michael Sarbanes, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association.

Sarbanes and his colleagues have been tracking data on free and reduced-price meals from Baltimore and surrounding school districts, and they put an exclamation point on Rusk's finding that poverty is spreading from the city to the inner suburbs as middle-class families settle in the outer 'burbs.

Baltimore County is a stark example. In 2000-2001, more than 50 percent of pupils at 26 of its 97 elementary schools were eligible for free meals based on family income. Only eight years earlier, none of the schools had more than 50 percent of its pupils eligible for free meals.

Sarbanes doubts the pattern has changed since 2001. "We're hearing a giant sucking sound from housing developments in the exurbs," he says.

Public policy can encourage affordable housing, says Sarbanes, and Montgomery County has been doing so since 1973, when it required developers to set aside housing for low- and middle-income families. "It's paid off," said Sarbanes. Though Montgomery and Baltimore counties have nearly equal proportions of poor children -- about 30 percent -- Baltimore County has twice as many schools with a majority of pupils in poverty.

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