June 14, 2015

The Tripwires that can Hinder Postsecondary Transition

By Gentry Fitch

A high school diploma is no longer the same commodity it was half a century ago. 

High school graduates are making slightly over $30,000 a year while those with a bachelor’s degree earn twice as much.  Over the long term, college dropouts sacrifice nearly $500,000 in lifetime earnings. Unemployment among young adults whose highest level of education is a high school diploma is 17.5 percent; among young adults whose highest level of education is a bachelor’s degree it is 7 percent. Furthermore, in Kentucky, over 60 percent of new job openings and 90 percent of new jobs in growing industries with high wages will require some postsecondary education by the year 2020. 

It is strikingly clear that for a student to be economically self-sufficient beyond high school, a postsecondary education is a prerequisite. 

Fortunately, the Commonwealth’s college-going landscape shows some important, positive developments. Kentucky’s high school graduation rate now stands at 86.1 percent, and, according to the Kentucky Department of Education, 62.5 percent of Kentucky’s 2014 high school students are considered “college ready.” Most significant, more than three in five high school graduates are enrolling in a postsecondary institution. 

From these numbers alone, it would seem as though Kentucky is on track to supply our local and national economy with a record-breaking, well-educated, highly skilled workforce. 

But in fact, that is not the case. 

When we examined similar indicators of success in postsecondary education, we found the results discouraging, bordering on abysmal. 

In Kentucky’s public four-year institutions, 46.6 percent of college undergraduates finish their degree in six years and 22.1 percent graduate in four. More unsettling realities lie in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, where just 12.8 percent of students earn an associate degree in three years. 

What is happening between students’ high school graduation day and—more than likely—their college dropout day? What is contributing to so many unsuccessful postsecondary transitions?  

For over a year now, members of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team’s Postsecondary Project have investigated these questions.   

During our research and many conversations with students, parents, educators, policy experts and others about the postsecondary transition experience, a central theme emerged, one that has to do with inequality.

Two features students have virtually no control over, their home zip code and their family’s income, determine so much of what we call college success.  And while the college admissions process purports to be a meritocracy, these indicators disproportionately predict access to valuable resources and information that help successful college graduates earn a degree with manageable or no debt. 

Some of the students we talked with, for example, told us they needed to work for pay during the school year and forgo the often expensive extracurricular activities which would otherwise make them more attractive to competitive postsecondary admissions offices.  And then there were the students we spoke with who came from families with no history of college graduates, making the cultural leap they were hoping to take that much more difficult. We found, too, that some students who were uncertain about whether they would make it to the next level of education after high school also had insufficient access to critical information, such as whether and how to apply for financial aid or what, besides academic achievement, a person needs to thrive in a college setting.

Our investigative team is calling the inequalities that thwart students from making successful postsecondary education transitions “tripwires.” These are the little-discussed, powerful obstacles that tend to sabotage students on the way to a self-sufficient, thriving life after high school. 

We hope these commentaries, our special report, and our attempts to disseminate them to students and families across the state prompt more of us to consider what it would mean to have more transparent conversations about the transition to college not only in the public policy arena, but also in our homes and in our schools.

This op-ed originally ran as part of a package in the Courier Journal reflecting on the release of Uncovering the Tripwires to Postsecondary Success.

Gentry Fitch

Gentry Fitch

Gentry is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. He was previously Chair of the Postsecondary Committee. Gentry graduated from West Jessamine High School in 2015 and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2019.