Article excerpt

Getting a kid through high school and into college might seem like a success story. But a Seattle-based research firm has found that less than a third of Washington students who start college - either two- or four-year - actually finish.

Nationally, the average college graduation rate is about 50 percent.

"People who think we have a high school dropout problem should look at the college graduation rates," said Michael Dannenberg, director of higher education policy at Washington, D.C.-based Education Trust, an organization that seeks ways to close opportunity and achievement gaps for students from prekindergarten through college.

The data is discouraging, educators and business professionals say, because by 2018, 67 percent of all jobs in Washington will require a postsecondary education and training, according to a recent Georgetown University study.

"We shouldn't just focus on high school graduation," said Shelley Redinger, Spokane Public Schools superintendent. "We owe it to our students to have a different goal."

Among Spokane-area high school graduates who started college from 2004 to 2008, Mead students had the highest graduation rate, with nearly 40 percent earning degrees. The findings are based on a five- year average of data. Mt. Spokane and Lewis and Clark high schools followed close behind, then Ferris and Shadle Park. Less than a third of students from the remaining high schools in Central Valley, East Valley, West Valley school districts and Spokane Public Schools earned college degrees.

Even when 60 to 70 percent of students who graduate from high school enroll in a postsecondary program, nearly half of them haven't yet completed their degree, the study shows.

Graduation rates track almost directly with the socioeconomics of each high school's ZIP code. National experts say minorities and low- income students struggle the most to complete college.

But demography isn't destiny, said Dannenberg, who studies college completion rates and affordability. The No. 1 indicator of whether a student will complete college is the academic rigor of a student's high school. That's followed by a college's intentional focus on completion, college peers and net cost of college to the student.

"If you have a strong high school curriculum and complete it, you will show up at college ready to do the work," he said. "Those placed at the remedial level have much, much lower completion rates."

Washington schools have struggled with math curricula for many years. …