Boston’s 15-year effort to get more of its high school graduates to attend and complete college is veering off course as the number of those pursuing higher education has declined sharply, according to a report being released Thursday.
Just 52.6 percent of the city’s high school classes of 2021, the most recent year available, enrolled in college within one year after graduation. That’s 17 percentage points lower than the classes of 2017, which hit a record high of nearly 70 percent.
The downward trend, beginning before the pandemic, is erasing one of the more impressive accomplishments for Boston Public Schools, which had relatively high college enrollment rates. The drop comes as college enrollment has declined nationwide.
Meanwhile, the rate of those finishing college within six years remains stuck at just above 50 percent, well below the 15-year-old city goal of 70 percent, according to the report by the Boston Private Industry Council, a workforce development organization. The report was prepared for BPS and Success Boston, a public-private partnership to boost college completion.
Taken together, the two trends highlight “the need for a renewed focus on college access and awareness so that current graduates know there are various paths to go to college and choose the right ones,” said Joseph McLaughlin, director of research and evaluation at the industry council and author of the report.
“The most surprising finding to me is the magnitude of the college enrollment rate decline,” said McLaughlin. “Preliminary data for the class of 2022 doesn’t show a big bounce back and national data isn’t showing that either. The decline seems like a longer-term trend.”
A variety of factors are likely making a college education less appealing or creating stumbling blocks for those on college campuses, McLaughlin said. Many BPS high school graduates are likely experiencing learning fatigue from school closures during the pandemic. The shift to online learning also led to other problems for students who graduated from high school in 2020 and 2021, making it more difficult for them to work with guidance counselors on college applications and financial aid.
More broadly, the high cost of college is likely deterring students from going, especially at a time when entry level jobs are plentiful and offer a quick way to make cash.
But many other better-paying jobs that require a post-secondary certificate or degree are going unfilled, even though they hold greater potential of providing BPS graduates with the financial means to continue living here, experts say.
In the area of greater social mobility, the report found that the racial disparities among those going to and getting through college are wide and in some cases getting worse. For the class of 2021, more than 70 percent of white and Asian graduates enrolled in college, while about 42 percent of Black and Latino graduates did.
Even more astonishing, nearly 80 percent of white women who graduated from BPS high schools in 2015 and enrolled in college earned a degree six years later, while only 30.9 percent of Latino men did, the report found, a nearly 50 percentage point gap.
“The results are sobering,” said Antoniya Marinova, senior director of education to career initiatives at the Boston Foundation, which paid for the report. But, she added, “We have a hopeful pipeline of solutions building.”
Across Massachusetts, the rate of public high school graduates going to college also has fallen, although not as severely. The statewide rate tumbled 11 percentage points from 73.6 percent for the high school classes of 2017, to 62.7 percent for 2021, according to state data.
Nationwide, college enrollment has shrunk by more than 1 million students since 2019, although freshmen enrollment was up slightly last fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The national rate of students completing college within six years was about 62 percent for those enrolling in 2016, a rate that has stagnated after years of steady climbs.
In Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu and BPS are pursuing several efforts to entice more graduates to go to college as well as taking steps to ensure they succeed there. In one significant move, Wu recently decided to invest $4 million to expand a free community college initiative so all residents, regardless of high school graduation year, income level, or immigration status, can take advantage of the program, starting this fall.
“Breaking down barriers and building pathways into higher education and preparing all our students for post secondary education is critical to help Boston’s students land higher paying jobs and create new opportunities for their future,” she said in a statement.
Other initiatives include providing high school students with more college-level courses, some in partnership with local colleges; allowing students to take the SAT during the school day instead of on weekends; and aligning BPS graduation standards with the admission requirements for the state’s universities.
“We will be working tirelessly to increase college enrollment after graduation and matriculation from college within six years,” Superintendent Mary Skipper said in a statement. “We must continue to invest in Early College Opportunities that help to break down barriers to higher education for our students especially those who have been historically marginalized.”
Interest in going to college appears to be rebounding, said Marsha Inniss-Mitchell, director of post-secondary initiatives and partnerships for BPS, noting that more students completed their financial aid forms this year, a good barometer for eventual college enrollment.
She also emphasized the report doesn’t capture some of the other meaningful post-secondary experiences BPS graduates are pursuing, such as the military and apprenticeships.
When Boston released its first report on college completion in 2008, it was considered groundbreaking because the national conversation at that time focused primarily on high school graduation rates. The initial Boston report found that just 35 percent of graduates who enrolled in college earned degrees — later revised slightly upward. The figures galvanized BPS, then-mayor Thomas M. Menino, nonprofits, and local colleges to improve the outcomes of BPS graduates.
The effort led to the creation of Success Boston, which pairs students with coaches who help them navigate the academic, bureaucratic, and financial mazes of higher education and provide social-emotional support.
A separate report being released Thursday found that students in Success Boston were 18 percent more likely to finish college in four years, but that the program would need to be expanded in order to achieve Boston’s goal of a 70 percent completion rate.
Kelly Lack, of Cambridge-based Abt Associates who coauthored the report, said the goal is “a good motivation to help us think about what we can continue to do to help support students throughout their college careers.”