Twin challenges face Philadelphia students – not just going to college, but getting through college.
The latest data from the School District make that clear. Too few enroll in college, and most who start don't finish. Many head for Community College and immediately get bogged down in remedial courses in English and math because they lack adequate preparation for college-level work. New data show that at most of the colleges Philadelphia students commonly attend, fewer than half ever earn a diploma.
When students end up with big debts but no degrees, it becomes hard to persuade more Philadelphians that pursuing a college education is important.
In 2007, Philadelphia ranked 92nd nationally out of 100 large cities in college attainment, with only 18 percent holding a bachelor's degree. Mayor Nutter pledged to double that percentage by 2017 and has launched a range of initiatives, including a PhillyGoes2College office in City Hall. One focus is educating the public on why college matters, not just for increased earnings potential or the local economy, but for broadening horizons and producing thoughtful citizens.
Still, some balk at the notion of preparing every student for college. For them, it's important to note that the entrance requirements for good jobs are typically higher than the requirements for college admission.
Getting more students on track ultimately comes down to whether the School District can move more schools to prepare their students well for college-level work. Right now, too many students are just accumulating credits without getting rigorous academic preparation, and the District seems to have no clear plan for fixing this.
There are still far too many stories of system failure – of students not being enrolled in the courses they need or never being told that college is a possibility. Getting good systems in place must start with establishing stable relationships between the adults and students in every building so nobody falls through the cracks. Setting up program after program is not enough.
It's hard to think about establishing a college-going culture when the system hasn't achieved the more basic goal of establishing a learning culture at every school. Adults in schools as well as students and their families need to be on the same page, with high expectations for students as a starting point.
We wonder what would change if the central office, which will be much smaller next year, supported college readiness and success with the intensity it now reserves for standardized test preparation. All our accountability systems ought to shift their focus toward these real-life outcomes. What really matters is whether students are able to graduate and then flourish in whatever further studies they pursue.