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BILL CRAWFORD: As K-12 performance improves, what about colleges and universities?



Education is the pathway to success. It starts early.

More children succeeding in kindergarten means more have a chance to succeed in school.    
Children in every school district are doing better in kindergarten, reports the Mississippi Department of Education. “Our schools’ and teachers’ focus on literacy is making significant impact on student learning,” said Kim Benton, chief academic officer. 
“Nearly 38,000 kindergarteners took the STAR Early Literacy exam in the fall with an average score of 502, below the benchmark of 530 that would indicate a student has basic literacy skills and is prepared for kindergarten,” reported the Clarion-Ledger. “But when taking the test again in the spring, Mississippi students’ average score rose to 703.”
More children learning to read in elementary school means more have a chance to graduate from high school.  
More children passed the 3rd grade reading level test on their first try this year, 87% versus 85% last year. The average score was higher too. “This literacy legislation is transformational because helping a struggling child learn to read will truly change his or her life – the most important thing we can do,” said Gov. Phil Bryant when he signed his literacy initiative into law.
More children graduating from high school means more can go to college. 
For the 2015-16 school year, the Mississippi Department of Education reported an 80.8% graduation rate, the highest rate yet. That’s up from 78.4% last year, and closing in on the national average of 82%. 
More children graduating from community colleges or universities means more can achieve a decent standard of living. Statistics show that the more education people get, the higher their earning potential.
Uh oh. 
For too many, the path through college ends with no degree and/or lots of debt. 
Available data shows graduation rates for Mississippi colleges and universities aren’t terrific and hardly improving: 20% of community college students graduate in two years; 24.2% in three years; 26.4% of university students graduate in four years; 49.8% in six years.  
Meanwhile, the cost of attending college keeps rising. Annual cost of attendance (tuition, room and board, books, etc.) at universities already exceeds 50% of median income. Average tuition at Mississippi’s 15 public community colleges will increase an average of 7% next year to $2,748. Average tuition at Mississippi’s eight public universities will rise above $7,000 for the first time this fall (it was $4,741 in 2008). 
Mississippi has a high proportion of students with debt and one of the highest default rates in the nation. In 2014, average federal student loan debt was $26,177.
Mississippi community colleges are more affordable than universities and many now provide free tuition to recent high school graduates. Mississippi universities are more affordable than those in most states. But, low graduation rates and mounting student debt expose serious challenges to our education pathway. 
As leaders succeed in getting more children through school and into college, they should make it a priority to get more through college with degrees and with minimal debt. 
» Bill Crawford is a syndicated columnist from Meridian (crawfolk@gmail.com)


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