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Sunday, December 3, 2023
Dec. 3, 2023

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A new report about college enrollment raises red flags for employers

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SEATTLE — Soon, around 70% of jobs in Washington state will require some education beyond high school. Yet the rate of homegrown high school grads earning credentials here is on the decline, a new report says.

The projected rate of enrollment in colleges and universities dropped 10 percentage points between the high school graduating classes of 2019 and 2021 alone, according to numbers released by the Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit advocacy organization composed of executives from companies around the state. That comes at a time when 70% of the state’s open jobs between 2024 and 2029 are expected to require some degree of schooling beyond high school.

“These students are going to be in a bind in terms of getting good jobs with advancement opportunities,” said Brian Jeffries, policy director for the Roundtable organization. (Figures in the report come from research firm Kinetic West.)

The low college-going rate here reaches back further than the pandemic, but postsecondary schooling has taken a nosedive nationally since 2020 as students took on financial hardship and child care. Resistance to college is driven by more complicated factors beyond just cost, including a belief that higher education isn’t required for a high-paying job.

But it isn’t just fewer bachelor’s degrees the Roundtable is worried about. Colleges and universities are also where people can get certified in certain trades and complete apprenticeships across a wide variety of disciplines. These also count as credentials.

“We hear people say that we need a lot more focus on the trades, but they’re captured in the data on credentials,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Roundtable.

The low college-going rate is somewhat of a puzzle in Washington, which has one of the most generous financial aid grants in the country for higher education. Yet students here fill out the required federal form for financial aid at a lower rate compared to the rest of the country.

The report also reflects continuing disparities by race and class. Less than a third of Native American, Hispanic/Latino and Black students in the class of 2021 are predicted to earn a credential by age 26, versus 41% of white students and around two-thirds of Asian and Pacific Islander students.

The data also reflect a massive drop-off between enrollment and completion of a credential among Black students. Seventy-one percent of Black students in the class of 2021 enrolled in a postsecondary program, but only about half are expected to complete, a projection based on current and historical trends.

Jeffries said Roundtable will continue to investigate this data point in partnership with Black-led organizations.

This projected drop-off in credentials is happening at the same time as graduation rates have increased, another cause for concern, Roundtable officials say. If their predictions hold, there will be a 20 percentage point gap between the graduation rate in 2021 (86%) and their postsecondary schooling enrollment rate, 66%. Back in 2006, those figures were at 75% and 78% respectively.

In other words, a higher percentage of students are graduating from high school, but fewer students are going on to college.

“Do we think that our state’s graduation requirements align to what students know and need to able to do to transition to postsecondary education? Our position is no,” said Jeffries.

The higher rates are partially driven by waivers of graduation requirements, implemented during the pandemic. But the state also created more ways for students to meet graduation requirements. In the past, students had to prove they were eligible for a diploma by passing exams.

Jeffries believes the state needs a better alignment between graduation standards and what it takes to survive after high school to reverse the expected decline in credentials.

That needs to improve, along with a whole other range of conditions, he said. School districts need to move away from graduation as a goal and toward preparing students for postsecondary opportunities. Programs that allow students to earn college credit while in high school without paying for the credit — known as dual enrollment programs — are also a proven way to increase their college-going rate.

“We believe that to a large extent part of the solution to this issue is to provide a seamless transition,” said Jeffries.

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