Lowell Sun 2/1/15 | By Amelia Pak-Harvey
Higher education is not producing enough graduates to supply the state’s work force.
BEDFORD — Middlesex Community College student William Russell, 20, wants to pursue criminal justice in school, eventually transferring to UMass Lowell to earn his master’s degree.
But the Westford Academy graduate had to tack another year on to that plan when he didn’t place well on the college placement test known as the Accuplacer.
“I got, like, two questions wrong on the Accuplacer, and now I have to take this class that keeps me here for another year instead of two,” he said.
Now, he’s taking his second course on preparation for college math. The course content covers topics he learned as a freshman in high school, he said.
Russell’s dilemma is part of a larger educational issue that hinders students from graduating and ultimately affect the state’s economy, experts argue.
Across the state, high school graduates are entering higher education unprepared for college-level work, evident through low scores on the Accuplacer test that land them in remedial, non-credit courses.
The test, required for all students entering a public college in Massachusetts, measures math, reading and writing skills to determine course placement. Students with a poor result can end up in introductory classes to prepare them for required college-level courses.
High schools throughout Greater Lowell had college enrollment rates above 50 percent for the class of 2011, according to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
But at every school, at least 10 percent of that same class also ended up enrolled in remedial courses.
Lowell High’s 2011 class had a remediation rate of 36.8 percent, while Dracut High School had 31.1 percent and Tewksbury Memorial High School had 38.8 percent.
The area’s vocational schools had the highest remediation rates for the 2011 class: Greater Lowell Technical, 62.6 percent, Nashoba Valley Technical, 47.3 percent, and Shawsheen Valley Technical, 47.6 percent.
“The problem is not that the kids are dumb. That is not the problem,” said Gary Kaplan, executive director of the educational non-profit JFYNetWorks.
Students end up in remedial courses partially because the high school curriculum is not aligned to college requirements, Kaplan said.
He estimates that about 10,000 students every year are taking Accuplacer, being placed in remedial courses, and dropping out of college in a semester or two.
The result is that higher education is not producing enough graduates to supply the state’s work force.
“The number of college graduates that we’re going to be producing in this state is not keeping pace with demand,” Kaplan said.
“Pretty soon, you’re going to have companies deciding to leave the state because they’re just aren’t enough people here, enough workers,” he said.
Kaplan said an Accuplacer prep program in high school could provide a partial solution. A pilot program is now being used at Lowell High School.
“We’ve got all these kids in high school right now who, if we could get them into community college at the credit-earning level, get them past the Accuplacer, out of the remedial course and into a real, credit-bearing course, we could hang on to a bunch of them,” he said.
Officials at Lowell High School think the program — a partnership with JFYNetworks and Middlesex Community College — could help bring down that 36.8 percent remediation rate.
“I think that there’s a tremendous opportunity for our school population to build and have a greater opportunity going to college,” said Headmaster Brian Martin. He estimated that roughly one-third of Lowell High graduates go to MCC.
Several options exist
Senior Conor Callery wasn’t aware of Accuplacer when he entered high school, but he recently passed the diagnostic test in his Accuplacer prep course.
“If I do decide to go to community college and maybe transfer out, I’ll have all my stuff done,” he said.
Beyond testing, other groups are offering different solutions to the graduation issue. Last fall, the nonprofit Mass Insight Education launched their College Success Campaign to increase the number of college graduates.
The group estimates that only 56 percent of students in the U.S. graduate from four-year public colleges within six years.
“We need, for the first time, to have a real vertically integrated strategy that starts particularly at middle school, which is when kids, in their own minds, based on the research, decide whether they’re college material or not,” said Mass Insight CEO William Guenther.
Guenther called the issue complex and multifaceted.
“There’s mutual accountability that we need to reinforce between the schools and the K-12 system — particularly starting in middle and high school — and higher-ed,” he said.
The campaign is pushing state officials to adopt an ambitious goal — and programs — for college success, Guenther said
This would include putting middle schools, high schools and colleges together in a vertically integrated strategy, he said.
Despite the highlighted problems, UMass Lowell Chancellor Marty Meehan said the school does not have a problem with remedial courses.
The school has increased its average SAT score by 79 points, Meehan noted, and its student retention rate has gone up to about 84.5 percent.
“We’re becoming much more selective, so we’re less likely to have students that aren’t as prepared,” he said.
But Meehan, a member of Gov. Charlie Baker’s education transition team, said the issue is still important.
“The fact of the matter is in order to be economically competitive, we need to graduate more of our students — particularly those from diverse backgrounds,” he said. “This is an issue that is extremely important to the economy of Massachusetts.”
Meehan said one of the obstacles the new governor should address is making sure college is affordable.
“Oftentimes students feel they can’t finish because they need to work and they leave school,” he said. “And if they leave school, there’s a likelihood that they won’t come back.”