At a time when a college degree has become a requirement to compete in the workforce, too many Maine students are graduating from high school unprepared for higher education.
Questions remain, however, on just why that is the case. How the state answers those questions will go a long way toward deciding how successful it is in growing the economy, raising wages and cutting poverty.
For the second consecutive year, the University of Maine System and the Maine Community College System, fulfilling the requirement of a new state law, released data about the number of freshmen — graduates of Maine high schools — who enrolled in a remedial class in the latest fall semester.
The numbers were not significantly different from last year’s — 11.4 percent of first-year students in the university system, and 52.2 percent at the community colleges. In both cases, the percentages are lower than the national average, but that does not mean that Maine is doing well.
Gov. Paul LePage has pointed to the data as proof that Maine high schools are falling short, and last legislative session he proposed a bill, ultimately unsuccessful, that would have penalized high schools financially if their students required remedial study.
Proponents of that approach point to the waste of time and money the remedial classes represent, and to research that shows students who take remedial classes stay in college and graduate at low rates.
It is unsettling that so many Mainers graduate from high school unable to jump directly into college courses, and more research is needed to understand why that is. Student achievement is complex, and there are more reasons than simply the quality of Maine high schools.
The issue of remedial classes, however, is only part of the story. Retention and graduation rates at community colleges are, in fact, low for all students — 25 percent, not including transfer students, according to a recent study by the Mitchell Institute, a Portland-based nonprofit that advocates for students pursuing college education.
The community colleges play a key role in preparing Maine students for work in today’s emerging fields. In order for Maine to create the workforce it needs, while raising employment rates and income levels, the state has to consider how to create not only successful high school graduates, but college graduates as well.
Family income and the parents’ level of education are certainly factors in the low graduation rates at Maine’s community colleges. Parents who do not attend college are less likely to push their children toward attending college, and to support them in their efforts once they are there. Income is a major indicator of a student’s educational achievement as well as their ability to stay in college through graduation.
Community college students, some of whom return to school after some time in the workforce, often are faced with these and other life challenges that prevent them from completing school.
The schools have adopted initiatives, including intensive tutoring and counseling, that give students the support they need to succeed. Those programs could serve as examples for what can be done systemwide.
The Maine Community College System and the University of Maine System are now working on a five-year plan to lower the need for remediation and increase graduation rates for those students. They also need to look at the student population as a whole, and see what can done to make the college experience more successful.