For generations past, graduation from high school was adequate and more or less guaranteed employability at a living wage. College was for the rich and otherwise privileged minority on their way to a business or professional career, and to continued advantage.

That division of labor, well-suited to an economy in need of many trainable entry-level employees, no longer meets our economic and social needs. Education and skill requirements for an increasing number of 21st century jobs continue to escalate.

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The good news is that as a nation we have responded. Two-thirds of high school graduates enroll in some form of higher education in nearly 5,000 public and private colleges, universities and technical career programs – a much higher percentage than in other industrialized nations. More than half of these students attend community colleges.

The bad news is that retention, sometimes called “persistence,” is not good, perhaps reflecting the “retail” nature of higher education in the U.S.  Too many challenged, first generation and under-represented students do not make it to campus after being admitted somewhere, in Connecticut and the nation.

They experience “summer melt” for many reasons, most of which make sense when examined case-by-case. Equally troubling, one-third of community college students do not make it to their second year (third semester); and less than half graduate from a degree program within six years. In addition, less than 10 percent of students who begin higher education in “developmental” (remedial) courses make it to a technical certificate or four-year degree that could lead to a job good enough to pay their bills, including college loan debts. Many such young adults end up chasing an ever more competitive, low-wage job market with little room for advancement to a “living wage” – a raging Connecticut and national debate.

We cannot afford these outcomes and sustain a healthy economy. We must do better to broaden the benefits of higher education.

Where is progress being made? Although money is not everything, and personal circumstances can be overwhelming, many cities in Connecticut and nationally are developing “promise programs” that offer college scholarships for students who stick to their Ps and Qs to make it through high school, and begin higher education with a scholarship. Students, of course, need to be serious about their studies, personal and family challenges notwithstanding, whether in third, eighth or 11 grade, and when they set foot on a campus. More such funding is needed.

The College Board has also modified the SAT to make it more user-friendly for challenged students; and the Khan Academy’s free, on-line SAT prep program will help level the playing field for students whose families cannot afford expensive SAT prep programs.

At the next level, many colleges in Connecticut and elsewhere are working with high schools and community agencies to “bridge” the transition from high school to college, including college faculty working with high school faculty on “curriculum alignment,” reducing “the summer melt” when all too many high school graduates, especially from our cities, already accepted into some form of higher education, do not matriculate.

In addition, an increasing number of counselors, advisers and mentors, typically working for community-based agencies, help such youth get accepted at an appropriate school, secure financial aid, survive the “summer before” paperwork challenge and survive their freshman year. Such “seamless counseling” will one day be routine, but now it is the exception.

In Connecticut and nationally, a few organizations – including Career Beginnings in Hartford, Higher Edge in New London and Bridgeport Public Education Fund in Bridgeport — are chartered and funded to continue to work with challenged students, often first generation, all the way through college, even into employment.

Adult education programs, part of local school systems, are increasingly working with community colleges to help older, “adult learners” begin, or return to, college through intensive, remedial efforts.

The state has gotten into the act by passing a controversial bill, PA12-40, that allows public colleges and universities to provide intensive remedial “crash” courses, and then requires those schools to allow admitted students, even those whose placement tests are sub-par, to enroll in credit courses, in part to raise their expectations and to get them to apply their precious financial aid to credit-earning work.

Once on campus, more schools are encouraging, and at the state’s public universities, requiring entering students to take a “first-year experience” course to build hard and soft college survival skills. More schools are developing creative ways to have anxious freshmen bond with their campuses through such courses, participation in themed “learning communities,” and “intrusive” freshman counseling and beyond. They try to make sure that each entering student is known personally by at least one significant adult, be they teacher or counselor. Many schools now employ upperclassmen to be “peer mentors” to facilitate such bonding and problem-solving. Many schools also help incoming students connect to a career interest early on, a proven factor in higher retention.

While these newer approaches are more common at the state’s public universities, Connecticut’s 12 community colleges would use more of them if they could afford to do that, something that is not possible in the current fiscal environment that has seen state funding for these schools decline in recent years. That might be changing now.

Perhaps some of these young adults, and even older adults seeking to better themselves by revisiting higher educational opportunities, should not try, but we owe it to them and our economy to help them try. Much has to happen in K-12 school systems, of course, but higher educational institutions inherit whatever achievement gaps their entering students possess and need to move relentlessly to increase retention.

Higher education, of many types, should be the norm for most high school graduates if employers are to find enough skilled employees.

David Johnston of West Hartford is director of the Center for Higher Education Retention Excellence, a program partnership of The Hartford Consortium for Higher Education.

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