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Graduation gap raises a red flag

Utah ranks 4th in prep grads but 31st in degrees

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Deseret Morning News graphic

Utah ranks fourth nationally in getting students to graduate from high school, but the state drops to 31st when it comes to the number of college graduates.

That's according to an April 2004 report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. The center's "Policy Alert" calls for solutions to bridge the gap between high school and college graduates.

One answer, it says, is to improve access to college. The center recommends creating college tuition policies that are based on median income and support need-based financial aid.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Rich Kendell thinks the focus should be on retention. The center's numbers, he said, are cause for concern.

Of 100 students who enter the ninth grade, 83 graduate from high school, according to the center. From there, 36 out of 100 go directly to college and 24 are still enrolled for their sophomore year. Within three to six years, only 17 have achieved either an associate's or bachelor's degree.

"That is a red flag for me," Kendell said. "I don't think we've focused on retention enough."

One obvious reason the numbers are lower for Utah college graduates is because the center assumes that students are graduating with an associate's degree within three years or a bachelor's within six.

The report doesn't take into account Utah's high population of students who leave on two-year and 18-month missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The state may also have more women who marry and leave school early and either don't graduate or return much later, Kendell noted.

Despite those two cultural factors, Kendell said a closer look is needed at why people are leaving early without a degree.

Utah remains high, however, in seeing students through to the end of high school. That is also due, in large part, to cultural elements, according to Utah State Office of Education spokesman Mark Peterson.

The focus on family in Utah and the support that brings among a largely white, LDS population tends to help the number of students graduating from high school, Peterson said.

Hispanics represent the next highest demographic number for high school students at almost 11 percent. Among that group, Peterson said, there is a strong sense of cultural pride in achieving a high school diploma.

Pressure also comes from the school system, Peterson added, with more students than normal taking advanced placement tests and ACT college entrance exams. That tends to result in a higher level of success while in school and a higher graduation rate, he said.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com