Higher Education Progress Stalled Despite High School Improvements

Contact: Lorie Slass, 215.575.4818, Daphne Borromeo, 408.271.2699


San Jose, Jose, CA - 09/15/2004 - Although more high school graduates are prepared for college, most states, and the nation as a whole, have made few gains in college enrollment and completion over the last decade. And for most American families, paying for college has become more difficult. These are among the major findings of "Measuring Up 2004: The National Report Card on Higher Education." This report is the first to examine ten-year performance trends in the nation as a whole and in each of the 50 states. The achievement gains are not evenly spread through the population, the report also finds. Substantial racial, ethnic, income, and geographical disparities are hidden in the rising national averages in achievement.

"Measuring Up 2004 "is the third in a series of biennial analyses issued by the independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, California. Like the earlier reports, this one measures the nation's and each state's performance in providing education and training beyond high school. "The good news is that more high school graduates have taken the courses that prepare them to get to college and succeed," said James B. Hunt Jr., former governor of North Carolina and chair of the National Center's Board of Directors. "We see big gains in high school preparation over the last decade, but the bad news is that these improvements have not been reflected in significantly higher college enrollment or completion rates."

"And for most Americans, college has become less affordable over the last decade," Hunt added. "At a time when we should be encouraging eligible students to attend college, we are making it more difficult for students and their families" to afford college. "This is a wake-up call for the nation, the states, and for our colleges and universities."

The "Measuring Up 2004" findings suggest that the national standards movement, and other reforms at the elementary and secondary school levels, have produced larger numbers of college-ready students. More high school students are taking rigorous courses, such as upper-level math and science. In many states, however, smaller proportions of students are completing high school and going to college following graduation. Moreover, only slightly more of those who do enroll in college are completing two- and four-year degree programs than was the case a decade ago.

"At a time of economic and demographic changes that point to a need for more Americans with education and training beyond high school, the United States has been stalled for a decade. During these years, many nations, including our international competitors for good jobs, have made significant gains and have surpassed us in some key areas, including higher education access and baccalaureate degree achievement of young people," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center.

"We can no longer attribute all of our college access and quality problems to the failure of public schools. The fact is, high schools have improved over these last ten years and we haven't seen commensurate higher education gains."

"Measuring Up 2004" evaluates the performance of each state in five areas: preparation for college; participation (do state residents enroll in college- level education?); completion (what percentage of those enrolled in higher education receive degrees or certificates?); affordability; and benefits (what economic and civic benefits accrue to a state that has a more highly-educated population?).

Each state receives an A-to-F grade in each category.

Looking at ten-year trends in these performance areas, the report finds:

  • Many states have made significant progress in preparing students for college-level education. Across the country, more high school students are taking upper-level math and science classes and more are enrolled in Advanced Placement classes. In North Carolina, for example, 59 percent of 9th to 12th graders now take at least one upper-level math course, an increase from 40 percent a decade ago. In Texas, the increase is from 38 percent to 59 percent, in West Virginia from 34 percent to 59 percent.However, the gains have been uneven throughout the population. For instance, in Connecticut, 35 percent of 8th graders scored at proficient levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics test, but only 12 percent of low-income 8th graders were proficient.  
  • For most Americans, college is less affordable than it was a decade ago. Tuition has increased faster than the incomes of most American families. For example, in New Jersey, 34 percent of family income is now needed to pay for college expenses at a public four-year campus, an increase from 24 percent a decade ago.  
  • Some states (Indiana and Massachusetts, for instance) have increased financial aid for low-income students to help pay for higher college costs. But others (Illinois, New Jersey) have reduced these aid programs. Generally, none of the increases in financial aid have kept pace with tuition increases.  
  • Nationally, the likelihood of 9th graders completing high school and enrolling in college by age 19 has declined. In New York State, for instance, a student's "chance for college" dropped from 45 percent to 34 percent in the last decade. In California, the decline was from 35 percent to 32 percent. In Illinois, the decrease was from 49 percent to 42 percent. ("Chance for college" refers to the likelihood of 9th graders graduating from high school within four years and directly entering an institution of higher education.) Students who graduate from high school are better prepared for college than they were a decade ago, but many students do not complete high school on time or at all; also, many of those who do graduate from high school do not participate in education or training upon graduation.  
  • Gaps in college participation between white young adults and ethnic minorities persist. In Massachusetts, the enrollment of white students increased from 38 percent to 40 percent over the last decade, while the enrollment of ethnic minority young adults decreased from 26 percent to 23 percent during the same time. In New Jersey, white enrollment rose from 41 percent to 47 percent over the last ten years while the enrollment of ethnic minority young adults dropped from 28 percent to 21 percent during the same time.  
  • Gaps in college participation between high- and low-income students have widened. In Pennsylvania, the enrollment of high-income students increased from 46 percent to 57 percent over the last decade while the enrollment of low-income students decreased from 24 percent to 21 percent during the same time. In New Jersey, the enrollment of high-income students increased from 48 percent to 53 percent over the last decade while the enrollment of low-income students declined from 27 percent to 17 percent over the same period.D  
  • egree completion at four-year colleges and universities remains low, even among top-performing states: Only 64 percent of students enrolling in four-year institutions earn a bachelor's degree within six years. Only 63 percent of community college freshmen return for a second year.  
  • The number of certificates awarded (usually for specific occupational programs) has increased by 50 percent in the last ten years, while there has been only about a 10 percent increase each in the numbers of associate's and bachelor's degrees.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education promotes public policies that enhance Americans' opportunities to pursue and achieve a quality higher education. Established in 1998, the National Center is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. It is not associated with any institution of higher education, with any political party, or with any government agency.

The National Center is supported by grants from The Atlantic Philanthropies, The Ford Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Special funding for the Measuring Up reports is provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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