By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS (Jan. 23, 2008) - The graduation rate of students at Maryland's four-year colleges reached an historic high in 2006, but recent declines in the percentage of freshmen who returned for their second year could mean the positive trend is ending, a higher education official told lawmakers Tuesday.
Michael Keller, director of policy analysis and research for the Maryland Higher Education Commission, told the House Subcommittee on Education and Economic Development that the returning rate is at an 11-year low and has been in decline since 2001.
"That will eventually have an effect on graduation rates," he said, because once those students leave school they are less likely to return.
The commission and the delegates showed particular concern over the lagging graduation rate of African-Americans. Though the group's graduation rate has been trending up since 1980, it is consistently below that of whites.
Among full-time, African-American students who started college in 2000, the most recent figures available, 45.1 percent graduated in six years. For whites it was 72.2 percent. Colleges across the country measure graduation rates in terms of the percentage of students who get a degree in six years.
Identifying the students in need of extra help before they leave high school would boost the success rates, Keller said, because most colleges and universities do not offer the kinds of remedial instruction some of them need. By graduating students who are not ready for college, high schools are setting them up to drop out.
"I'm wondering at what point we need to devote energy to intervening because this is spiraling in the wrong direction," said Delegate Melony Ghee Griffith, D-Prince George's.
George Reid, the commission's assistant secretary of planning and academic affairs, said he expected the need for remedial instruction would increase in the future as the proportion of Latinos in the state's population continues to rise.
"This is a major problem that the nation is facing," Reid said. "There is no correlation between performance and ability."
The students are capable of succeeding in college, he said, but their achievements are limited by other factors including their socioeconomic situation and trouble making the transition to college, he said.
Preparation for college is the major determining factor in later graduation success and bringing high school classes closer to college courses would help students to succeed, Reid said.
"The more rigorous a course of study a student takes the greater the chance of graduation," he said.
The commission could not pinpoint the cause of the decline in retention rates, but Keller said he looked forward to the creation of a system that would gather data showing students' progress from elementary school to college.
"Maryland is behind the curve in doing this compared to what other states are doing," Keller said.