How age-old obstacles and a brand-new law affect college completion
By Jill Fitzgerald
“Statistically, I shouldn’t even be here,” says Erwin Hesse ’08, leaning back in his desk chair at the University of Maryland’s Mitchell Building.
He enrolled at Montgomery College with a 1.3 grade point average from Rockville High School and no money to pay for his education. His mother and father, only high school educated in El Salvador and Peru, respectively, could offer no help navigating the daunting college admissions and financial aid process.
“Only 10 percent of first-generation, minority background students actually complete a bachelor’s degree. In fact, when I graduated high school in 2005, the dropout rate for Hispanic students was almost double the rate of any other ethnic group,” says Hesse.
Hesse’s first stop—and last hope—after graduation was Montgomery College. He overcame abysmal grades and near expulsion from high school to complete a degree.
While he became an exceptional student, Hesse’s accomplishment has proven elusive for other students, according to data by Complete College America, a national nonprofit working with states to improve college completion. Between 1970 and 2009, undergraduate enrollment in the United States more than doubled, while the completion rate had been virtually unchanged. Once first in the world, America now ranks 10th in the percentage of young adults with a college degree.
President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020. To reach this goal, the US Department of Education projects that the proportion of college graduates in the United States will need to increase by 50 percent nationwide by the end of the decade.
Governor Martin O’Malley set ambitious completion goals for Maryland as well: 55 percent of Maryland’s adults, ages 25 to 64, will hold at least an associate’s degree by 2025. Maryland legislators enshrined this goal in law with the adoption of the College and Career Readiness and College Completion Act of 2013. The law calls for greater collaboration among all sectors of education from preschool to college and requires initiatives to drive completion.
Maryland State Senator Rich Madaleno, who cosponsored the college completion legislation, believes Maryland’s higher education institutions face a tough challenge: educating a different type of student with fewer resources. He suggests that if institutions don’t meet this challenge, they’ll fall behind the competition. “We can’t afford that as a state—a state so dependent on the educational ability of its citizens.” he says.
Driving that graduate increase is the need for an educated workforce to fill the jobs of the future. Complete College America found that, by 2020, more than two-thirds of the jobs in Maryland would require a career certificate or college degree.
Additionally, nearly 30 percent of Americans with associate’s degrees now make more than those with bachelor’s degrees, according to Georgetown Uni-versity’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In fact, other recent research in several states shows that, on average, community college graduates right out of school make more than graduates of four-year universities.
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