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Difficult high school curriculums, advisers help college students succeed, report says

CHICAGO (MCT) — Getting admitted to a top university isn’t enough. For many students, finishing the mission and getting a degree requires a variety of initiatives, from a rigorous high school curriculum to more advisers, according to a new report released Thursday by the National School Boards Association.

The nonprofit found that only 57.8 percent attending four-year institutions in the U.S. earned a diploma in less than six years; while just 32.9 percent in two-year schools graduate on time. Students are more likely to drop out during their first year than at any other time. Of freshmen at four-year schools, 21 percent did not continue for a second year. In community colleges, 36 percent of freshmen failed to return.

Researchers also identified interventions to help improve the numbers and found that positive outcomes start long before a student moves into the dorm.

“This really provides a rare glimpse of what schools — especially high schools — can do to influence post-college success,” said Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Education, an arm of the National School Boards Association, which oversaw the project.

The findings were applauded by many area educators and confirm what they see in their own students, they said.

“I’m really excited about these findings,” said Elizabeth Dozier, principal of Fenger High School in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood, where the school has added counselors and more challenging curriculum. “Many of our kids get a college acceptance letter, but they never make it. This means that, with the steps we’re taking now, we’re definitely on the right track.”

Analyzing data from Department of Education, Hull and other researchers followed more than 9,000 high school sophomores in 2002 through 2006. They zeroed in on three factors for getting a degree:

High-level mathematics: More demanding high school math classes can be one of the largest predictors of success. Students from higher socioeconomic status had a 10 percent better chance of persisting in a four-year college if they had gone beyond algebra II. The results were even more striking for disadvantaged students: They were 22 percent more likely to continue in college with these classes on their transcripts.

Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate classes: Taking an AP/IB class in high school had a dramatic effect on students’ chances of persevering. Low achieving students were 18 percent more likely to finish at a four-year college by exposure to a challenging curriculum — even if they fail the end-of-course exam.

Academic advising: Talking to an academic adviser in college yielded better results for everyone, regardless of demographics. Undergraduates at four-year schools who saw their adviser “often” vs. “never” were 53 percent more likely to reach graduation. The researchers called these statistics “possibly the most surprising finding” of the entire report. They also noted that turning to well-trained adults is a habit cultivated early.

Since the economic downturn, however, high school counseling departments have suffered under the budget ax, with a 1-to-500 ratio of students to guidance counselors not unusual, Hull said. “This is a call to action to invest in our counselors, so we can get more out of the investment in our students.”

Karen Foley, director of Chicago Scholars, an organization dedicated to helping under-resourced students succeed in higher education, said access to a knowledgeable ear cannot be overemphasized. It’s why they maintain contact with their students throughout their entire college career, not just during application season. It’s especially crucial for first-generation college-goers, whose parents might not know how to steer their children through the college years.

“Our kids will call saying, ‘I can’t pass this course and the professor says it’s my problem.’ Or ‘I’m in the wrong major and I hate nursing.’ Or even ‘My roommate is using my deodorant. What should I do?’ Often, (the student’s) answer is to leave.”

Masoud Qader, a junior at University of Illinois, Chicago and one of Foley’s “stars” — sees smart students routinely call it quits.

“It’s a combination of everything...most aren’t prepared...and they’re thrown into this totally new environment and it’s just a shock,” said Qader, a bioengineering major.

“A lot of kids were doing busy work in high school...they weren’t taught to think critically,” said the graduate of Northside College Prep High School.

At Fenger, Dozier said they’ve made significant strides in improving post-secondary drop-out rates. School officials are focused on making sure students are well-equipped to step up to the next level, including offering a new class on college reading and writing.

“We’re constantly trying to close the gap...and mining the data, then turning it into solutions,” said the principal.

But no matter how hard educators try, it is difficult to make up for the unlevel playing field at home — which is why some students end up as dropout statistics, experts said.

Qader, whose parents emigrated from Afghanistan in 1984, said his family’s newcomer status is a reality he confronts often.

Because of language barriers, he must accompany his mother to doctor appointments and be the one to fill out official forms, whether car insurance or a lease, draining time from his studies. When he applies to medical school, he’ll be at a disadvantage compared to those with family connections, he said.

“That’s why great advisers and mentors are so important,” he said. “Without them, you’re just navigating without a map.”

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