Ahhh, May is here. The chill has lifted and with it, the heaviness of winter. Hopefully we are feeling a little bit lighter as the days get longer and color returns to the landscape.
May is usually the kickoff to graduation season, bringing caps and gowns and slightly too-long speeches. For many students, graduation feels like the ultimate weight being lifted.
I’ll be heading back to Maryland in a few days to celebrate my own brother-in-law graduating from college—congrats Greg! Last year it was Carly from high school, and next up will be Charles. I love to celebrate alongside them and see where they go next. The Dr. Seuss book “Oh the Places You’ll Go” has become a cliché for this time of year, but for me it still sums up the season nicely: it’s about possibilities.
Here in Michigan, more students are graduating on-time and fewer are dropping out of high school. The 2019 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book shows a 16.6% decline in the percentage of students not graduating on time from 2012 to 2017. The dropout rate has declined by 19.2% over the period to 8.6% of students in 2017. While we have work to do to make sure this positive trend continues, more students are walking out of high school with a degree in hand, naturally asking “what’s next?”
The answer to that question depends on many factors, but we know that some play an oversized role. The recent college admissions scandal that swept the headlines highlighted how a group of wealthy families used their status to get their kids ahead. While paying bribes and faking test scores are extreme, there are smaller, subtler ways that the college admissions process preferences kids with privilege.
Michigan data show that while all students have stalled in meeting college readiness benchmarks in recent years, students of color and students from families with low incomes face the most barriers to meeting these standards. English language learners also face unique challenges, regardless of family income.
Even for students of color who are able to overcome these barriers, inequities persist due to structural discrimination. Among “highly qualified” students, White students are overrepresented at the most-selective four-year colleges and African American and Latinx/Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools with fewer resources and less likely to complete a degree than their White counterparts. Students with low incomes are also less likely to graduate than their more economically secure peers.
We know that racial, ethnic and economic disparities exist long before students apply for college. Disparities in educational outcomes can be traced back to disparities in access to adequate prenatal care and early childhood education and supports. This is why the League advocates for investing early in communities with the greatest disparities for children of color and those in families with low-incomes. In addition to making these early investments, we need to fully fund our schools and remove barriers to higher education so that all children can thrive from cradle to career.
In Michigan, average tuition and fees for four-year schools have been on the rise, and the state now has the highest student cost burden in the Midwest at 23% of median household income. For some students of color the burden is even greater, with tuition and fees now taking up 36% of the median household income of African Americans and 27% for Latinx/Hispanic families. Organizations like the Michigan College Access Network know that college remains out of reach for too many and are working to put forward equitable solutions to increase college attainment in our state.
We also know that some students may prefer to work or get skills training rather than go to college, which is why the League advocates for filling up worker’s pockets, building skills and paving the way for better jobs. Economic security should not depend on a degree.
It is promising that education and workforce issues are taking center stage at the state and national levels. Thanks to the hard work of advocates, ideas like debt forgiveness, tuition coverage and increasing teacher pay are gaining momentum, putting a much-needed focus on equity in the process.
Many graduates dread the often-asked, “What are your plans after graduation?” The uncertainty can be scary, and then there’s the fear of not measuring up. The season is indeed a time for reflection and decision making as well as the picnics and parties.
This year, as we celebrate the resiliency of our students in the face of barriers, I hope we take some time to reflect about how we could better serve all our kids and expand their possibilities. Michigan, like the rest of the country, has tough realities to face, and it will take bold action to give our kids a better future. Instead of asking the graduates, maybe we should ask ourselves – where will we go?