Tony Smith was an average ninth-grade student with an interest in basketball when one of his teachers at Owings Mills High suggested he sign up for a program that would help him get into college. Now a junior, Smith has taken the SATs twice, compiled a list of colleges to apply to and set a career goal of becoming an accountant.
Without being taught study skills and pushed to take more advanced-level classes, Smith and a number of students at Owings Mills High in Baltimore County said they would be right where many of their friends are: with no idea where to apply to college or what academic skills they need to survive there.
"I was more mediocre," Smith said but the program at Owings Mills "gave me more study time and study habits."
With the help of efforts like the one at Owings Mills High, the county has had success in increasing its rate of students attending college in the past several years. The county saw 61 percent of its graduates in 2009 go to college, up from 54 percent in 2002.
Baltimore County is one of a handful of systems in the state that keep track of such data. In Harford County, 64 percent of its graduates went to college in 2009; Montgomery County had 68 percent; and Baltimore City had 47.5 percent.
"Teachers and administrators have worked very hard to change the college-going culture in our schools," said Lynne Mullen, head of guidance counseling in Baltimore County. "So students have gotten the message … [that] having a bachelor's degree is the answer to being competitive in a global economy."
Even though school districts are working to get more of their students to college, far too many capable students still don't make it and educators argue the country's economy needs them. While not every student needs to go to college, the Obama administration has set a national goal of having 55 percent of young people finish college by 2020. A Georgetown University report released last week said unless the nation changes course, there will be a dearth of 3 million workers with the right training and education by 2018.
Baltimore City and Baltimore, Harford, Montgomery and St. Mary's counties use the National Student Clearinghouse, a service they must pay for, to track what happens to their graduates. Maryland's data system isn't yet good enough to know what is happening after its students graduate.
But it is clear that a lack of preparation in high school and financial aid has meant many students never earn a college degree.
In Baltimore County, more than 80 percent of the students attending college return for their sophomore years, but then the numbers drop off. Only 31 percent of 2003 graduates earned a two- or four-year degree within six years of finishing high school. That compares with 38 percent in Harford, 51 percent in Montgomery and 11.7 percent in Baltimore City.
"These are not good numbers," Sonja Brookins Santelises, chief academic officer for Baltimore public schools, said of the city's statistics. "We, in our secondary schools, have to really grapple with how do we prepare our students to be successful in college."
William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the state's university system and who has made the issue a priority, calls the city's graduation statistics "a tragedy." He said the data point to a need for more collaboration between school districts and colleges and universities.
The country's college attendance and graduation rate has international ramifications because of the global competition for jobs.
"For most of the 20th century, we led the world in high school and college completion and that gave us a huge competitive edge. We built the strongest economy and a large middle class," Kirwan said.
But that has changed and the nation now ranks 10th in the world in the percentage of young adults with a degree. About 39 percent of young people in the United States have a college degree, although Maryland does better at 43 percent.
Like many suburban counties in Maryland, Baltimore County has opened up advanced placement courses to all students. It gives the PSATs to every student beginning in ninth grade and has instituted programs like Advancement Via Individual Determination, a class for students in the academic middle who show promise but who aren't necessarily headed for college. AVID teaches students study skills and time management and gives them academic supports to move to honors and advanced classes.
Diane Garbarino, principal of Owings Mills High, said the faculty talks to students about college more than ever before. But there are still obstacles.
"Parents who haven't been to college don't have the experience with how to apply to college," she said.
She added that some of her students face financial barriers and that more are going to two-year colleges than they did a few years ago, she said.