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Pennsylvania's college drop-out rate traced to high schools

| Sunday, March 14, 2010

When Mahala Muzopappa began taking classes at Westmoreland County Community College last year, she realized she was not ready for college-level math.

Though she had earned As and Bs at Apollo-Ridge High School, Muzopappa, 19, struggled in her college algebra class, relying on a peer tutoring program to pass.

"I didn't feel prepared," the photography major said. "It took a whole semester for me to catch up."

Kristen Jeannette, a sophomore at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, ended up on academic probation during her freshman year.

"The adjustment -- it's so hard," said Jeannette, 19, who took a college-prep course at Riverside High School in Ellwood City. "They teach a whole different way here. No one's going to spoon-feed you anymore."

While more Pennsylvanians than ever before are beginning post-secondary education, many are struggling with college-level work.

Muzopappa and Jeannette now are thriving in college, but others never catch up.

Less than two-thirds of students who enroll in a four-year college in Pennsylvania will earn a bachelor's degree within six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Among students pursuing an associate degree, only one in three will graduate within three years.

"There's a lot of room for improvement," said Michael Race, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. "We have a lot of people who are not completing college."

This month, the department announced that the commonwealth joined Complete College America, an alliance with 16 other states, in an effort to raise college graduation rates by 2020.

The alliance will require Pennsylvania to set goals for increasing graduation rates and to take a hard look at why it is so difficult for many students to earn a degree, Race said.

Some of the causes already are well-known -- tuition bills can be burdensome, and for many students, life events get in the way. Some simply have trouble adjusting to a new environment. Others founder when they can't decide on a major.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that many students graduate from high school without the academic skills they need to succeed in college.

According to the state Department of Education, one in three recent high school graduates who attend Pennsylvania's public universities and community colleges takes at least one remedial course to catch up with their peers in math, reading or English.

"What we're finding is a lot of students are dropping out of college because they weren't prepared," said department spokeswoman Leah Harris.

At Westmoreland County Community College, more than 80 percent of students test into remedial math, and about 65 percent test into remedial English or reading.

"Not having the reading and math background to read a textbook or complete a science experiment -- that's the biggest obstacle," said Carol Rush, the college's vice president of academic affairs.

This school year, the college made remedial classes mandatory for students who test into them. With the help of a $2 million federal grant to boost student retention, the college also created a tracking system to make sure students are on course to graduate.

So far, Rush said, she has seen positive results, including a 2 percent increase in students staying past the first semester.

But getting students on track to graduate from college begins in high school, she said.

"Some of the high schools that know they're struggling have asked us to work with them, and I think that's going to make a difference over the next five years," she said.

One of those is New Kensington-Arnold's Valley High School, where 29 percent of graduates need remediation when they attend publicly-funded colleges.

Assistant Principal Jeffrey Thimons said the high school is working to get its students caught up before they get to college. This year, the high school started a tutoring program and began offering a remedial math course for seniors who did not pass the 11th grade PSSA test.

"We've seen success on that," Timmons said.

As at most county high schools, Valley seniors are encouraged to take advantage of a dual enrollment program that allows them to earn college credits at WCCC.

"Those dual enrollment courses really help students when they transition into college," said Rush. "They're really prepared to be a college student."

To tackle the preparedness problem at the college level, IUP, California University of Pennsylvania and many other public colleges have opened "student success" centers in the past several years. The centers provide peer tutors, workshops and counselors to help students with study skills, time management and course scheduling.

"We're trying to raise our retention rate," explained Richard DiStanislao, director of IUP's new center.

IUP's six-year graduation rate is just 50 percent, according to Complete College America. California University's is 48 percent. College officials say half of students who drop out do so during their freshman year.

"If you can get a student through the first year, they're much more likely to make it," said Cynthia Young, a student success facilitator at Cal U. "Even students who come in with a deficit, with a lot of support and hard work, they can catch up."

Muzopappa, who now has a 3.6 grade point average and is on track to receive an associate degree, said that was how things turned out for her.

"I've learned to study on my own," she said. "I keep going, just to keep my head full of knowledge."

At the Community College of Allegheny County, nearly 80 percent of students who graduated from high school in 2009 were required to take remedial courses in math, English or reading.

Most were behind in math, said Mary Frances Archey, vice president for student development. Archey said CCAC routinely sends high schools information about how many of their graduates are required to do remedial work.

"With that information, the school districts know if there is a gap between what the student has when they get their high school diploma and when they get to college," she said.

One district that pays attention to such statistics is Pittsburgh Public Schools. More than half of its graduates who attend publicly funded colleges take remedial courses, according to the education department.

Superintendent Mark Roosevelt acknowledged that high schools need to do a better job of getting students ready for college, but said students also must learn to study and develop the discipline to work on their own.

"There is certainly an academic part of it, but there is also a behavioral piece of it," he said.

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