Celebrate graduation, but there is more work to be done

Celebrate graduation, but there is more work to be done

It’s graduation season in Kansas. In high school gyms and college stadiums, in family living rooms and all-night parties, we’re celebrating those who have put in the work to complete a credential: a high school diploma, technical certificate or college degree.

That is appropriate because each education step usually has a big impact on future standard of living. The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that each step in the educational ladder increases employment and earnings. As would be expected, the reverse is true of poverty: each educational level lowers the chances of living in poverty.

Graduation is a sign of accomplishment. Completing twelve years of “formal schooling” used to be rather unusual. In 1940, the earliest year U.S. census information is available, only about one-third of Kansans (and Americans) had a high school diploma. Completing a four-year degree was quite rare: only five percent of the population had a bachelor’s degree in 1940.

Despite frequent criticisms that our school system is failing and programs have stagnated, Kansas educational attainment has continually improved. I can trace this in my own family history. In 1940, my parents were children. When I entered school in the 1960’s, about half the population had a high school diploma. When my children were beginning school in the 1980’s and 1990’s, about 75 percent had completed high school; as my eldest granddaughter celebrates her “promotion” from preschool to kindergarten next fall, it’s over 90 percent.

Likewise, when my parents graduated from Fort Hays State University in the late 1950’s, less than 10 percent of the population had a four-year degree; when I graduated from college in the 1980’s it had only recently passed 15 percent; when my children earned degrees in the 2000’s they were joining about 25 percent of the population; and today about one-third of adults have a four-year degree or higher.

By these long-term standards, educational attainment in Kansas has never been higher. There are short-term advances, as well. Since 2010, when Kansas and most other states began using the “adjusted cohort graduation rate” calculation, the overall percentage of Kansas students who graduate “on time” in four years rose from 80.7 percent to 87.3 percent in 2018. (This doesn’t count students who complete high school in more than four years or earn an equivalency.) Crucially, most subgroups of students who have lower graduation rates – those eligible for free and reduced lunch, disabled, African American and Hispanic students and English Language Learners – made even more progress, narrowing the gaps among groups.

There is good news on postsecondary graduation, as well. According to the Kansas Board of Regents Vision 2020 Progress Report, the total number of degrees or certificates awarded by public technical and community colleges and universities increased from 37,462 in 2010 to 43,843 in 2018, an increase of 17 percent, although total enrollment has actually declined.

Colleges and universities report graduation rates in two ways. First, the percentage of students who graduate in the expected time to complete a degree (two years for community colleges and four years for universities). Second, the percentage who take 50 percent longer: within three years for community colleges and six years for universities. Kansas community college and universities have increased both rates. Overall first-to-second year retention rates have also improved.

The enrollment of students in college and universities by racial and ethnic groups is similar to the overall population. Increasing numbers of students are enrolling and earning credit for postsecondary courses while in high school, which experts believe will further increase the rate of successful degree completion. The number of adults with previous prior credit but no degree returning to college has also increased.

Furthermore, Kansas compares favorably with the nation on many of these measures. Kansas’ average adjusted cohort graduation rate (percent graduating high school in four years) from 2011 to 2017 is 17th in the nation; the percent of 18-24-year-old Kansans with any postsecondary education ranks 11th.

Despite these improvements, Kansas is still struggling to keep up with needs. Economic experts predict that over 70 percent of future Kansas jobs will require a credential beyond high school. Currently, approximately 65 percent of Kansans over age 24 have some postsecondary experience, but that includes those who have not completed a degree or certificate. The Board of Regents estimates that Kansas will need an additional 5,000 bachelor’s degrees and 8,000 technical certificates and associate degrees by 2020 to meet that demand.

The Kansas State Board of Education has developed a measure called the Postsecondary Effective Rate for Kansas school districts, which looks at the percentage of each class of seniors that have both graduated from high school and either completed a degree or certificate or are enrolled in a postsecondary program within two years of graduation. Because of this two-year lag, the most recent data was for 2016, when the effective rate was 48.9 percent, up from 44.5 percent in 2012 but still far below the target of 70-75 percent.

Finally, although Kansas ranks high nationally in education attainment, there is evidence other states have been improving faster in recent years.

So, while Kansans are celebrating the achievement of graduates at all levels this Spring, it is important to remember those who have not been as successful and redouble efforts to help them. That is a particularly important charge to school leaders after the Kansas Supreme Court and Legislature have directed significant new resources to help exactly those students. Let’s commit now to have many more students and families celebrating next year.

For more details about Kansas educational attainment, see this previous blog, or this video. Here is the KSDE Postsecondary Progress report. Here is the Kansas Board of Regents Foresight 2020 report released January 2019.