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New report finds setbacks in college enrollment and completion rates for Boston Public Schools graduates

A student celebrates at the UMass Boston commencement ceremony at TD Garden in Boston in 2021. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
A student celebrates at the UMass Boston commencement ceremony at TD Garden in Boston in 2021. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The rate of Boston Public Schools graduates who enrolled in college fell sharply during the pandemic, from 63% for the class of 2019 to around 52% for the class of 2021. And the rate of college completion for city students has stalled in recent years, with just over half of enrollees finishing a degree within six years.

Those findings are from a new report out Thursday from The Boston Foundation and the Boston Private Industry Council, nonprofit groups focused on college success and workforce development.

The report leaves a lot of ground to cover for city and state officials and nonprofit partners, who aim to achieve an ambitious 70% college completion rate for BPS graduates by 2030.

“There are substantially fewer graduates enrolling in college, a recent development that has serious economic and social implications,” the report concludes.

The Boston Foundation prepared previous reports on BPS college completion rates in 2016 and 2018.

When it comes to the number of students enrolling in two- or four-year colleges immediately after graduation, Boston has historically performed well for a big-city district. From 2014 to 2019, the city’s average rate of 67% was only slightly behind the overall national average of 68%.

“It’s always something that we’ve celebrated here,” said Joe McLaughlin, who prepared the report as the director of research and strategy at the Private Industry Council.

McLaughlin’s analysis finds that BPS’s classes of 2020 and 2021 were hit unusually hard from a deep nationwide downturn in college-going rates during the early years of the pandemic.

The report also sheds light on stark racial disparities in college enrollment among BPS students. Fewer Black and Latino students enrolled in college than their white and Asian peers, and their college-going rates experienced steeper declines during 2020 and 2021.

Some of that disparity seems to have roots in the city’s tiered approach to public high schools.

Relative to their Black and Latino peers, more white and Asian graduates attended exam schools, McLaughlin said. Those schools “obviously have selective academic requirements to get in, and [their students] are on kind of a college ‘track’ right from the start,” he added.

The pandemic only exacerbated those issues, according to Antoniya Marinova, senior director of Education to Career programs at the Boston Foundation. “A lot more of our Black and Latino graduates come from low-income families, which were particularly affected by the pandemic: by its health effects, by its economic fallout,” Marinova said.

The report identified similar disparities in college completion. Four out of five white female graduates in the class of 2015 who enrolled in college had completed within six years, compared to roughly 3 in 10 Black and Latino males.

Last year, the city’s Success Boston initiative — in which the Boston Foundation is a partner — re-committed to the 70% college-going and completion rate goal first set in 2008.

The initiative’s centerpiece is “transition coaching,” whereby students are paired with coaches during their first two years of college. The coaches help students navigate academic, financial and social barriers as they arise.

A related report, published Thursday by the research firm Abt Associates, finds that students who received such coaching were 18% more likely to complete college in four years.

But even Success Boston backers like Marinova say more help is needed: that Boston students will need “multiple connected supports … from high school through the transition to the post-secondary setting.”

Marinova believes that current city and state officials understand that need, as reflected in an array of investments including BPS’s new focus on students’ mental health, the city’s expansion of a tuition-free community college program and the move to pause tuition increases at public universities in Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed budget.

Related:

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.

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