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May 20, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Commencement season is when we celebrate college dreams turned into reality

President Obama’s commencement speech Sunday at Morehouse College in Atlanta underscored the still-vital role of historically black colleges and universities, known as HBCUs. These institutions were created when African Americans and other students of color were shut out of American universities and colleges. They remain an critical option for many students, educating a disproportionate share of low-income and minority students. Without HBCUs, many students would emerge from high school without a higher education option.

The challenge is how to get more students to make the leap from high school to college. About 66.2 percent of last year’s high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or
universities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. My recent column argued for more state funding and support of programs that help struggling high school students graduate and move on to college or  a four-year university.  Guidance counselors used to divvy up the student body and work one-on-one with students, but tight budgets have whittled the ranks of guidance counselors. All students need help starting in middle school navigating the college and career-ready terrain. For example, few students who dream of becoming a scientist, doctor or engineer know they need to take algebra by 8th grade in order to have time to in high school for other college prep courses plus a well-rounded retinue of arts and other classes. Helping students turn college dreams into reality requires a team approach by schools, families and guidance programs.

Support does not end once students are in college. Especially for students who are the first in their families to attend college, helping them navigate the rigors of college coursework, financial aid and campus life is critical. An analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by the Associated Press found that graduation rates at historically black colleges have fallen over the last five years. The aggregate national rate was around 33.7 percent in 2011, according to the AP analysis. The overall national college graduation rate average is about 58 percent. Improvement is needed all around.

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