The National Journal reflects on increasing college enrollment rates as reported by the Pew Research college enrollment continues at record high levels. That’s what the Pew Research Center found last week in a report on college enrollment and ethnicity.  Fawn Johnson explains:

In October 2010, the United States hit an all-time high of 12.2 million college students between 18 and 24 years old. The jump was attributed entirely to a single-year, 24-percent surge in Hispanic enrollment, accounting for 1.8 million students. College enrollment for black students also reached its highest level, climbing to 1.7 million students. White students declined by 4 percent, although they still make up about three-fourths of the total college population.

Pew attributes the spike in Hispanic and black college enrollment to demographic changes; the populations of black and Hispanic youth are growing while the white population is shrinking. But that isn’t the whole story. Enrollment is increasing at a faster rate than the black and Hispanic population boom. Pew says that’s because more minority students now are actually eligible for college–they graduated from high school. This is a good thing. More Hispanics and blacks are completing high school and more of those are going to college. It sounds exactly like the kind of goal outlined by the Obama administration and a wide swath of education advocates.

The weak economy is playing a part in the college enrollment spike, the Pew report says. Young people are enrolling in college because fewer of them can find jobs after high school. They also know that employers tend to pay about 50 percent more for young workers with college degrees than those with high school degrees. In a tight job market, this is the reaction one would hope for: Employers want educated workers. Those workers are going to get that education.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this. Are we seeing fruits of educators’ tireless efforts to push students over the high school finish line? Does the growth in high school graduation and college enrollment rates for Latinos signal a breakthrough in language and social barriers for the nation’s fastest growing demographic? Does the historic high in high school graduations among blacks mean that efforts to turn around low performing schools may actually be working? Is this purely a function of population changes? Or is there more going on here?

There are clearly some economic and demographic trends at work here but improvements are also a function of coordinated intervention. Riding the heady political consensus that was NCLB in 2001, a small handful of reform groups and a couple big foundations committed to all students college and career ready, an aggressive agenda promoting a college prep curriculum and an aggressive school development agenda.  By February 2005, NGA and Achieve embraced the all students college and career ready agenda and launched the Graduation Rate Compact–an effort to drive consistency and accuracy in graduation rates that finally became the law of the land this year.  With support from CCSSO, the Hunt Institute, the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education (to name just a few) the college and career ready agenda gave rise to the Common Core which should result in consistently high expectations for all students.

At least as important as the policy push was the development of thousands of great schools with higher achievement, graduation and college attendance rates.  High performing CMOs were the most important development of the last decade–they eliminated excuses.  After more than a decade of new school development and policy advocacy, all students college and career ready is the dominant education agenda. It is necessary, just, and feasible.
Some would argue that college is not for everyone (had this twitter dialog this weekend).  That may be, but we don’t question the assumption on behalf of affluent kids.  Four conclusions
  1. The system should not decide which students are college bound–poor kids will always get screwed.
  2. All high school graduates should at least be prepared to earn community college credit without remediation–that currently means passing a placement exam which should be made available to high school juniors so they know where the real finish line is.
  3. There should be viable pathways to family wage employment identifiable by 16 year olds.
  4. It’s obviously a bad idea for kids from low income families to rack up lots of college debt–we need to keep and create free and low cost post secondary options.

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