The rate of Boston public school graduates earning college degrees has increased sharply, putting them on par with national averages and marking a rare accomplishment for an urban district, according to a report being released Thursday.
The robust growth in college completion rates is a reflection of the state’s drive to raise academic standards and Boston school officials’ efforts to overhaul academic programs, according to the report issued by the Boston Foundation , a charitable organization deeply involved in education initiatives.
The report, “Getting Closer to the Finish Line,” found that 49.2 percent of the Boston class of 2006 graduates who enrolled in college had finished within six years, up from 40.6 percent for the class of 2000. The report looked at the success of students who earned a bachelor’s or associate’s degree or a professional certificate.
By comparison, around 47 percent of students nationally had earned bachelor’s degrees within six years of enrolling in college.
“The large part of the gain [in Boston] was due to the behavior of kids who went to four-year schools,” said Andrew Sum, the director of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies, which prepared the report. “Boston kids who go on to four-year schools seem to exceed graduation rates nationally.”
Superintendent Carol R. Johnson said she never expected to see the college completion rates rise so quickly in a school system where most students live in poverty and many come from homes where another language is spoken.
“We are evidence that public education can help urban kids succeed and complete college,” said Johnson, who has created more opportunities for high school students to take college-level courses and has expanded capacity at some of the city’s best-performing high schools.
Boston has managed to push up its college completion rates even as more high school graduates have been enrolling in college, according to the report.
One factor driving the increase in degrees earned: More students appear to be showing up on campuses better prepared for the academic rigor. The report found, for instance, that enrollment rates for remedial courses in college have declined.
The city’s college-completion picture, however, becomes less rosy after factoring in all students who graduated from high school, instead of just those who enrolled in college. Of the 3,214 graduates from Boston high schools in 2006, 1 in 3 earned college degrees within six years. That is still an improvement from 2000, when it was just 1 in 4.
The rise in college completion rates bodes well for Mayor Thomas M. Menino’s efforts to foster a more skilled workforce and lift more neighborhoods out of poverty by putting more degrees in the hands of the city’s high school graduates.
More than four years ago, Menino set a goal: that at least 52 percent of the members of Boston’s class of 2009 who enroll in college will earn some type of degree within six years. The report says that Boston is on track to meet — and likely exceed — that goal.
But the report questions whether the rates will climb fast enough to meet a second goal of the mayor’s: A 70 percent college completion rate for Boston’s class of 2012 members who enroll in college.
One troubling finding in the report revealed a slight drop in the rate of graduates from the class of 2009 who have enrolled in college and then returned to campus for another year. The report offers no explanation for that decline, but it occurred in a sluggish economy where family finances have been stretched thin.
A statewide statistic also casts doubt on whether Menino’s ultimate goal can be reached: across Massachusetts, the rate of students earning degrees within six years hovers only around 58 percent, which is actually one of the highest rates in the nation.
Then there is the stark reality that socioeconomic factors are hindering the chances of many Boston students earning degrees.
For instance, 31.7 percent of black students in the class of 2005 who enrolled in college earned degrees along with 29.3 percent of their Hispanic classmates. By comparison, more than 60 percent of white and Asian classmates earned degrees.
Paul Grogan, the Boston Foundation’s president, said, “If we come close to the mayor’s goal of 70 percent that will be a huge success.”
Boston has been at the national forefront of education overhaul efforts that focus on college completion.
The effort was sparked in 2008 by a groundbreaking report by the city and several organizations, including the Boston Foundation. At the time, Menino was alarmed when Northeastern researchers revealed that only 35.5 percent of graduates from the class of 2000 had earned college degrees. That rate was subsequently revised upward to 40.6 percent, which still lagged national averages.
To help the city meet the goals he established for college completion, Menino launched Success Boston, which provides high school graduates
with counselors to help them navigate through the bureaucracy of college, particularly the bursar’s and financial aid offices, and helps connect them with tutors and other services.
The program, which has enrolled a few hundred high school graduates who are at the greatest risk of not finishing college, is yielding results, according to the latest study.
“By launching Success Boston, we were the first city in the country to make college completion part of our education pipeline,” Menino said in a statement. “Now, President Obama and other mayors across the nation have embraced this challenge.”
The city has partnered with several local organizations to provide the counselors, such as the Bottom Line in Jamaica Plain, which specializes in helping students get into and through college.
The expertise can be a particular boon for students who are the first to go to college in their families.
“It is someone saying, ‘Is this a good idea taking an extra loan out or taking six classes when you are having difficulty with five,’ ” said Greg Johnson, chief executive of Bottom Line. “We try not to be the parent in the situation, but sometimes it’s the kind of guidance a parent would provide.”
The report clearly shows Boston is heading in the right direction, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-private partnership between Boston’s businesses and education institutions.
“The upward trend holds great promise not merely for the health of the community but the quality of the workforce,” Sullivan said. “There are so many collateral benefits when students can grow up and credential themselves in a very unforgiving labor market.”James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.