Record high school graduation rates don’t necessarily mean more college students

Posted November 9, 2016

Record high school graduation rates across the U.S. don’t necessarily mean higher university enrollment, according to officials at UW-River Falls.

New statistics from the White House released in October show U.S. high school students in 2015 graduated at an all-time high of 83.2 percent, rising more than 4 percentage points since the 2010-2011 school year. In a ranking of the states, Wisconsin had a rate of 88.4 percent, while Minnesota graduated students at a rate of 81.2 percent.

However, officials at UWRF said the rates do not mean university enrollment within the region will increase because the total number of students graduating is still down.

“Birth rate that equates to those in public or private schools and the population growth is not there in Wisconsin or Minnesota, really,” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Gregg Heinselman.

According to Heinselman, during the 2016-2017 school year, 64,639 Wisconsin high school students are expected to graduate along with 59,932 students from Minnesota. Over the next 10 years, the projected number of students graduating is only expected to grow by 2,000 in Minnesota while slightly declining in Wisconsin.

Heinselman said having fewer prospective students creates more challenges for small universities like UWRF.

“There are fewer students to recruit to a college degree,” said Heinselman. “We’re competing with multiple institutions for students to come to River Falls.”

Besides competition from other universities in the region, UWRF also works to convince high school students to attend a four-year university instead of entering the workforce or enrolling in a technical school.

Kit Luedtke, principal of the River Falls High School, said 70 to 80 percent of graduating students will attend some form of secondary education. However, the school also promotes other options for students. Luedtke said high schools are becoming more of a way to educate students on ethical citizenship than a way of preparing students for higher education.

“I really think what we do as a high school now has changed and morphed a little bit where we need to have students be good human beings and great people first,” said Luedtke. “If you think about when you’re hiring a candidate or hiring anybody, whether they have a college degree or a high school degree — whatever it might be — they’re looking at the whole first.”

The new graduation statistics also revealed a major problem in the Wisconsin education system as the state ranked No. 1 in the gap between white and black high school student graduation. In 2015, only 66.1 percent of black high school students graduated, while 92.9 percent of white students received a diploma.

Luedtke said the racial divide comes from several factors inside and outside of the state and national education system. He said schools need to work to allow every student the chance to a successful education.

“When some of the basic needs are not being met, whether it’s racial disparities or poverty disparities or whatever it might be, we need to take care of those things first,” Luedtke said. “When your kids are homeless or they’re worried about where their next meal is coming from or where they’re staying that night, it’s tough to focus on education.”

Officials at UWRF said racial challenges that the Wisconsin education system faces affect the campus environment. UWRF has worked to encourage students from underrepresented communities to apply to the university. Data for the 2015-2016 academic year show that just less than 10 percent of the 5,928 undergraduates enrolled at UWRF were students of color or multiracial.

UWRF Admissions Counselor Pedro Renta specializes in multicultural outreach and said universities need to strive to hire educators from a variety of cultural backgrounds.

“I think it’s an important piece because I think students can associate themselves with professors and really see them as mentors,” said Renta.

To maintain enrollment and increase diversity on campus, Heinselman said UWRF must maintain its affordability and provide relevant degree options for prospective students.