SOMA School District Measuring College Success
Columbia High graduates who go on to college are beating the national average for obtaining degrees, but the district is aiming for even better results.
As of September 2010, nearly 44% of Columbia High School graduates who began college in the fall of 2005 had graduated, according to a study conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse on behalf of the South Orange-Maplewood School District.
At first glance, the study's findings appear to paint a disappointing picture for South Orange and Maplewood public schools. However, though the statistics demonstrate more than 50% of Columbia's 2005 college-bound seniors have yet to earn a college diploma, it is likely the reality is more positive and more promising than one might think at first glance.
In addition to the 201 students who have already graduated, 79 students, or 17.2% of the 460 people tracked in the study, are currently in the "Retained in College" category, meaning that they are still working toward their undergraduate degrees. An additional 21 students either returned from a leave of absence or were just beginning their collegiate studies at the start of the 2010-11 school year. The number of students that had withdrawn from their institutions as of September 2010 stood at 91, or 19.8%. The remaining 68 students could not be located.
"The purpose of the study was to better understand what it was that was preparing students to persevere through college," said Superintendent of Schools Brian Osborne. "The district has an obligation to track how well students are doing after they've graduated [high school]. Most districts just look at graduation rates and at how many kids say they're going to college, but don't follow up later on to see what happens to them. The district is proud of the effort made by people both in the school system and the board of Education to look at what happens when the kids leave high school."
District administrators submitted records of Columbia's 2005 college-bound graduates to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSCH), which analyzes data of more than 17 million students enrolled in over 3,300 post-secondary institutions nationwide, in order to track college completion rates.
The reasons for delayed college completion can be complicated, and in many instances they stem from factors beyond students' control. For some students, financial obstacles make it nearly impossible to graduate within the traditional four-year period.
John (not his real name), a 2005 Columbia graduate who enrolled in Marymount Manhattan College and expected to obtain a bachelor’s degree by May 2009, found economic difficulties would set him back a year and a half. In order to help pay for student loans — all of which were in his name — John spent his sophomore year of college working as a Resident Advisor on his campus. During the first semester of his junior year, he decided he would be able to earn more money by working with a jewelry company several days a week. By the second semester of that year, however, it had become clear that a part time job did not pay enough to keep up with loan payments, so John began working full time in addition to being a full time student.
It was not long before what had begun as a busy albeit manageable schedule gave way to one that was unsustainable. It only took one semester for John to realize that he could not keep his grades up while maintaining a work schedule that required him to travel across the country twice a month and to Europe several times a year.
To solve his problem, John switched his status at the end of his junior year to a part-time student, so that he could continue to earn enough money to stay in school.
Two years later, in April of his fifth year in college, John stopped working and resumed full-time enrollment at Marymount Manhattan. After taking courses this past summer, he only needs to complete four more classes in order to receive his diploma. John will graduate this month, after five-and-a-half years, with a degree in Business Marketing with a minor in Psychology.
He is not the only member of Columbia's 2005 graduating class who is "Retained in College" due to financial setbacks. Though John points out that he was not affected by the economic downturn in 2008 — again, he has taken out student loans by himself so as not to financially burden his family — other students indicated that the recession played a large role in the postponement of their graduation dates.
When Luke (not his real name) graduated from Columbia in June 2005, he looked forward to studying music at Rutgers University's Mason Gross School of the Arts that coming fall. A talented trombonist, he spent every Saturday of his senior year in high school playing at the Manhattan School of Music, in addition to participating in the Youth Orchestra of Essex County and the New Jersey Youth Symphony. Luke was successful at Rutgers, but at the end of his sophomore year, he worried that the mandatory and streamlined curriculum for juniors and seniors at Mason Gross would leave him ill-prepared to pursue any career aside from becoming a professional musician. To receive a more well-rounded education, he auditioned for and was accepted to the prestigious Berklee College of Music—with the caveat that the credits from only one of his courses at Mason Gross would transfer. With two years of college study already completed, Luke would need to complete an additional four years at Berklee in order to receive a bachelor’s degree.
Luke worked for a year to save money for school and started at Berklee in the fall of 2008. At the end of his first semester there, his family learned that his father, a TV producer for almost twenty-five years, was being laid off. With a younger college-age daughter to put through school, Luke's family would only be able to support him through two years at Berklee. He left after the spring of 2010 and began teaching at a private music school in Manhattan, which he indicated he sincerely enjoys. After saving some money and getting some real-world experience, Luke plans to return to college — a possibility for which Berklee thankfully allows — to obtain his degree in Composition or Film Scoring.
Joseph Odumewu from the same class is yet another example of a student for whom the title "Retained in College" does not do justice. Among the colleges to which Odumewu was accepted during his senior year of high school are Rutgers University, Long Island University, and the United States Military Academy at West Point. Following in his older brother's footsteps, he chose the latter, and in the fall of 2005 Odumewu enrolled in West Point's Preparatory School where he studied Psychology. In spite of his academic success there, he found that he didn't enjoy the strict military lifestyle. In the fall of 2006 he transferred to Kean University on a soccer scholarship. Like Luke, his former Columbia classmate, he was confronted with the fact that the credits he had already completed would not transfer; as far as Kean was concerned, Odumewu was still a freshman.
Odumewu worked part-time during one of his two semesters at Kean in order to start saving money to pay for his education. He then transferred a second time in the fall of 2007, also on a soccer scholarship, to Long Island University. He maintains that he made the right decision — Long Island's Psychology Program is better suited to his needs, he says — but he and his family are feeling the financial effects of his switching to an expensive private institution.
Although his mother and sister are paying his tuition, Odumewu has worked as a Resident Advisor since his arrival on Long Island in order to avoid paying the additional costs of housing and meals. To earn spending money, he also works at a school gym. It is a position he had a hard time finding after the early stages of the recession led many of his peers at LIU to look for work as their parents dealt with layoffs. Odumewu will earn his Bachelors of Science in Psychology in May, six years after completing high school, and he hopes to be accepted into graduate school to begin working toward his Masters.
It is hard to know whether the other 100 Columbia 2005 graduates who are still in college remain there as a result of complications similar to those of John, Luke, and Joseph Odumewu. (The district is not legally permitted to release the names of students in the study, so it was not possible to speak with them.)
However, these three students' stories demonstrate that their inability to graduate "on time" does not stem from lack of motivation or academic preparedness; it should not reflect badly on the South Orange and Maplewood School District, and it should certainly not reflect badly on the students themselves. Presumably there are many others like them who, despite economic as well as bureaucratic difficulties that have delayed their graduation dates, have already demonstrated tremendous academic success and perseverance that give the school district reason to be proud.
Although John, Luke, and Joseph Odumewu have encouraging stories, the statistics presented in the study are likely disconcerting for parents, teachers, and students in South Orange and Maplewood. For some, the numbers may raise questions about the district's ability to prepare its students for academic success beyond high school graduation.
Osborne said the South Orange and Maplewood School District have been working hard to implement changes to help ensure all students are adequately prepared for success in college and beyond.
Asked what the district plans to do to increase the number of Columbia graduates that complete college in the future, Osborne said, "The district is moving on many fronts right now. It has strong goals around student achievement at all levels, and we're raising the bar for all students, while narrowing the gaps in student learning that are too often correlated to race and class. We have well defined strategies that we're moving aggressively on."
Osborne cited recent changes that have been made at the elementary school level and new developments in the ACHIEVE Volunteer Tutor Program, as well as a new framework for evaluating teachers district-wide and the revamping of the district's reading and language arts curriculum.
While the school district does not have available data pertaining to college completion rates for any Columbia graduating class prior to 2004, the statistics for that class alone are encouraging. At the end of the 2007-2008 academic year— four years after CHS 2004 grads completed high school — approximately 30% of that class's college-bound students had received a bachelor’s degree. Just one year later, in May of 2009, that percentage increased to 42%. As of September 2010, more than six years after graduating from Columbia, 47% of CHS students who began college in the fall of 2004 had graduated.
The school district's Chief Information Officer, Paul Roth, pointed out the college completion rate is significantly higher for Columbia graduates than it is nationally. "Based on 2006 statistics, it's estimated that just 28% of the U.S. population has a college degree," he said. "Our Columbia Class of 2004 has come close to doubling that."
The percentage of Columbia's college-bound seniors that graduates college will probably never reach 100%. However, with each passing year, the percentage of Columbia students that does complete college — even if 10 years after completing high school — is likely to increase. The numbers suggest that for many students, college completion is delayed, but Graduation Day does eventually come.
About the writer: Alissa N. Lance grew up in South Orange and Maplewood and graduated from Columbia High School in 2005. Lance graduated from Cornell University in May 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in government.