These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Voices: Are Denver grads really college-ready?

Originally posted on EdNewsColorado, August 1, 2012. Copyright ©
Written by Van Schoales.

Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, questions the wide disparity between Denver high schools when it comes to students attending quality colleges.

It’s been a year since I had to help my daughter navigate the myriad of challenges in getting her to college, i.e. selection, application, visits and financial aid applications. At times it felt like we were Odysseus trying to find our way home.

The college enrollment process is a remarkably complicated, expensive and difficult process even for the most knowledgeable and resourced family. It makes you wonder how those families without a college-educated parent and funds provide the necessary support for kids.

As a college degree with all the accompanying skills and networks become even more important today, high schools have a responsibility to ensure that each of their students, regardless of their home support/resources, make a transition to some form of post-secondary learning (college for most) so that every graduate is able to live up to her or his potential.

Are DPS schools truly preparing kids for college?

A+ Denver has been reflecting on what’s happened since a series of reports on Colorado high schools started coming out a decade ago to see what has – and has not – changed since then.

We’ve also been trying to determine which recommendations from these reports have been addressed and whether high schools are any better than they were in 2002.

One critical question is whether a high school expects college for all (or most) students?
And if the high school expects college for all or most, what kind of college is expected? What is the definition of college? And last and most important, how is the high school preparing students for a particular definition of college?

College is often the determining educational factor for a person’s economic success. Too frequently, educational reformers and policymakers set objectives around college with the assumption that most colleges are equal when we know this is far from true.

The variation in college quality is as great, if not greater, than high school quality in most communities (most high schools at least offer some Advanced Placement courses). Some colleges prepare most students for graduation and high-paying jobs while others leave most students as college dropouts with big loan bills.

We know that what determines whether college is expected and which colleges are expected comes first from family and second from high school. As we were reviewing some of the data on Denver high schools, we thought it might be helpful to do some comparisons.

Remediation rates on the rise

Denver Public Schools has made some great progress over the past five years in sending more students to college with the help of the Denver Scholarship Foundation and others, but the remediation rates for students entering college have also grown. In 2010, there were 1,585 students entering college (in- and out-of-state), which is a significant improvement over the number of 1,203 in 2005.

However, the percentage of DPS students who enroll in a Colorado institution of higher education and need remediation has also risen from 46 percent in 2006 to 59 percent in 2011. We believe it is critical that DPS seriously address the challenge of academic preparation so that students are not graduating believing that they are prepared for the rigors of college-level work when they may not be.

Here is a table showing the main high schools for Denver with a list of data that includes the average ACT score, the percentage of students needing remediation who enter college in Colorado, the percentage who pass Advanced Placement courses (the numbers enrolling in DPS have grown dramatically), the percentage of graduates attending two-year or four-year Colorado colleges, the percentage attending out-of-state colleges and, lastly, where this year’s valedictorian(s) will be attending college in the fall.

Awaiting more data – and discussions

This is a small snapshot and should not be considered the full picture of the “college power” of a Denver high school, but it does give a general sense of the quality of Denver high schools. We should be able to paint a much more detailed picture of the “college power” of every Colorado high school this fall when the Colorado Department of Education provides some longitudinal data on where students from each high school go to college, what they major in and whether they stay past their first year. Ideally, we would want to compare schools with complete lists of where all of the high school’s graduates go and how they perform once in college.

As you can see, Denver has huge range in quality in terms of preparing students for college while also having a huge range for where students attend college. Some DPS high schools have remediation rates above 80 percent while others have more than three-quarters of AP students failing courses.

It should be noted that the cost of college is a huge barrier for many, if not most, students these days. The tuition range for the colleges listed here start at about $2,500 for Metro State and climb to nearly $50,000 per year at many of the elite private colleges. It is also important to know that the “net cost” for low-income students can sometimes be as low or less than state colleges. Duke, Pomona, Stanford and many other selective colleges have “need blind” admissions and provide full support for low-income students who are admitted. Some students can thrive in any college but colleges, like high schools, have a remarkable range in student outcome data and cost.

I’m curious as to whether readers here think this range of quality is acceptable and if not, what should be done about it.

A+ Denver will host several meetings and issue several reports in the coming months. We hope this gets the conversation started.