A decade ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino set a goal of doubling the percentage of city high school graduates who earned college degrees. But a report being released Wednesday shows the city has fallen far short of achieving that goal.
Just 51.6 percent of the city’s college-bound high school graduates in 2011 had earned degrees six years later, according to the report. Menino’s goal was to have 70 percent of college-going graduates earn their degrees within six years.
The gulf in performance serves as a reminder of the great complexities involved in moving thousands of students, mostly from low-income households, through a costly higher education system as they often juggle jobs and family obligations. Some also have been hamstrung by poor academic preparation in high school, while others — typically first-generation college-goers — struggle to navigate the Byzantine bureaucracy of higher education.
City, school, and civic leaders who have been pushing for higher college completion rates, though, see encouraging numbers in the results. While the percentage of students earning degrees has increased only incrementally in recent years, the number of students earning degrees has risen sharply, partly because more graduates have been enrolling in college.
For instance, the city’s high school class of 2000, which served as the baseline year for the initiative in 2008, saw only 735 members earning degrees. But in 2011 that number rose to 1,304, according to the report, Staying the Course, which was prepared by the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit that works on education and job initiatives.
“We clearly demonstrated an ability to move the needle and pretty dramatically, but there is a lot more work to do,” said Paul Grogan, president of The Boston Foundation, a nonprofit that has been instrumentally involved in the effort.
Joseph McLaughlin, research and evaluation director for the council, said the rates have also stagnated somewhat because many of the graduating classes examined in recent years entered college during the recession in 2008 and 2009, and many families’ finances remained tight in the following years.
“We have a lot of students mixing schools and work to support themselves,” he said. “From a financial standpoint, that is difficult. How do we create a higher education system so that more students can go full time for free?”
To that end, Mayor Martin J. Walsh two years ago launched an initiative that allows city high school graduates with certain grade-point averages to go to community college for free. Governor Charlie Baker bolstered that effort last year by allowing those students to eventually transfer to four-year public institutions.
That Boston has focused on college completion for the past decade is a success story in itself. When the initiative was first launched, very few school systems nationwide tracked how well their graduates did in college. The more popular barometers of success were high school graduation rates and standardized test scores.
But the Menino administration and other civic leaders believed the future success of the city rested in making sure its high school graduates were positioned to do well in an increasingly skilled-based and innovative-thinking economy, where most jobs would require a college degree or a postsecondary certificate from a community college.
The initial data, which focused on the class of 2000, generated much soul-searching. Just 35 percent of graduates from about three dozen city-run high schools earned college degrees. That figure was eventually revised upward as researchers gained more data, but that did little to soften the resolve to boost the numbers higher.
Menino’s 70 percent goal was ambitious. Nationally, just 61.7 percent of college enrollees in 2011 completed their degrees within six years. When examining Boston high school graduates who enrolled in the fall immediately following graduation in 2011, those earning degrees six years later is 55.2 percent.
One of the key initiatives to emerge from the effort has been Success Boston, a collaboration among the city, the school system, higher education institutions, and nonprofits that includes providing intensive tutoring and mentoring to students as they venture onto college campuses. Each year about 1,000 members of a graduating class receive support, and those students tend to have greater success in continuing through college.
Meanwhile, many colleges, particularly Bunker Hill Community College and the University of Massachusetts Boston, have revamped their approaches to help students finish school.
For instance, Bunker Hill has been able to reduce the number of remedial classes students take by making placement decisions based on their high school grade-point averages rather than a standardized placement test that often underestimated students’ academic ability and knowledge.
“If given the right conditions, all students can achieve,” said Pam Eddinger, Bunker Hill president.
Yet despite all these efforts, big divides persist between those Boston students who achieve their college dreams and those who do not, frequently falling along racial and gender lines.
Some 80 percent of female Asian high school graduates in 2011 earned college degrees six years later, while only 33.6 percent of their male Latino peers did.
Grogan said he expects that eventually Boston will achieve Menino’s goal; it will just take longer than expected.
“We knew 70 percent would be a tall order, but it’s not bad to have a goal that exceeds your grasp,” he said. “I think everyone is committed to unlocking the next chapter.”