The college graduation rate for Boston high school students has increased sharply in recent years, but about half of those who enroll in college still fail to earn degrees within six years, according to a new report.
The study also found that black and Hispanic students remain far less likely than their white and Asian peers to earn degrees. And students from the city’s exam schools such as Boston Latin are almost twice as likely to earn degrees as those from the city’s other high schools.
School officials said the report highlights how much progress the city has made over the last decade to improve high school academics and provide more support to poor and minority students who go to college, even as it underscores how many students still struggle to earn degrees.
All told, 37 percent of students from the class of 2009 earned professional certificates or college degrees within six years, up from 25 percent from the class of 2000, according to the study, by the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit group, and Abt Associates, a research firm.
Looking at a more selective group — those students who enrolled in college — 51 percent from the class of 2009 earned degrees or certificates over the next six years, compared with 41 percent from the class of 2000.
“We always have to celebrate when we show improvement,” said Tommy Chang, Boston’s superintendent of schools. “At the same time, we still have quite a long way to go. If only 50 percent of our graduates from Boston Public Schools are going on to college and getting through college, we could do better, and we need to do better.”
The report shows Boston fell just shy of a goal set by Mayor Thomas M. Menino in 2008: that 52 percent of the graduates from the class of 2009 who enrolled in college would earn degrees.
Officials say they will now aim for Menino’s next goal, that 70 percent of those students from the class of 2011 who enroll in college should graduate.
Menino set those goals after a 2008 Northeastern University study that found that just 36 percent of students from the class of 2000 accomplished that goal. That figure was later revised to 41 percent, but still lagged national averages by several percentage points. And it prompted officials to begin focusing on college graduation rates as a more meaningful measure of success than college enrollment rates.
The new report indicates Boston is no longer trailing so far behind national averages, despite its largely poor and minority student population. Nationally, 59 percent of high school students who enroll in college immediately after graduation earn degrees, compared to 55 percent of Boston high school students.
Still, the report found that most minority students who head to college end up dropping out. Indeed, just 42 percent of African-Americans and 45 percent of Hispanics from the class of 2009 who enrolled in college earned degrees within six years, compared with 64 percent of white students and 75 percent of Asians.
J. Keith Motley, chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Boston, said his campus — which is one of the top destinations for local students — is trying to close those gaps by increasing financial aid, providing jobs on campus, and building dorms. Studies show, he said, that students who live and work near campus are less likely to drop out.
“We’re not satisfied,” Motley said. “But we believe we’ve made a lot of progress.”
The study also pointed to a major gender gap, regardless of race. About 58 percent of female students from the class of 2009 who enrolled in college within a year earned degrees over six years, compared with 42 percent of male students.
“A lot of the gains from the class of 2009 were among females, and that gap has gotten wider, and it is persistent across the major racial and ethnic groups,” said Joseph McLaughlin, research and evaluation director at the Private Industry Council. “That, to me, is one of the challenges we face.”
Achievement gaps were also pronounced between the city’s three exam schools and its regular high schools. Among exam school students, 77 percent who enrolled in college within a year earned degrees over the next six years, compared to 39 percent from the city’s other high schools.
Chang said the disparity underscores the need to overhaul a tracking system that divides students into advanced work and general education classes beginning in fourth grade.
Chang, who argues the tracks exacerbate socioeconomic and racial disparities, has sought to open advanced-work classes to all students, regardless of standardized test scores.
“We have to close those opportunities,” he said. “It’s obvious those tracks play themselves out when kids go into college.”
The report could also fuel efforts by Mayor Martin J. Walsh to redesign the city’s high schools, which he has said are not adequately preparing all students.
Rahn Dorsey, the mayor’s chief of education, called the report encouraging but said it highlights the need to ensure that high schools are rigorous enough so that students don’t have to take remedial classes in college.
“That’s a recipe for dropping out,” he said.
He said the findings also point to the importance of expanding early college programs — free college courses for low-income high school students that help them make the transition to college and afford the rising cost of a degree.
The study suggested that an initiative called Success Boston, launched in response to the 2008 Northeastern report on low graduation rates, could also help. Under the program, coaches, beginning in high school and continuing through the first two years of college, help students with college applications and financial aid forms, and handle challenges related to family, work, and transportation.
About 52 percent of black male students who had those coaches earned degrees, compared with 33 percent of black male students who were not coached, the study said.
The Boston Foundation, with the aid of a federal grant, recently expanded the program to serve 1,000 students a year, up from 300.
“The report tells us we don’t have to settle for abysmal college completion rates, even for low-income, minority, and immigrant students,” said Paul S. Grogan, the foundation president.