Oregon has a long way to go, Southern Oregon especially, to meet the state's goal of sending 80 percent of high school graduates to post-secondary schools, local educators say.
"Oregon does have terrible college entry numbers. The good news is everyone is paying attention," said Dee Anne Everson, executive director of United Way of Jackson County.
Two years ago, Oregon adopted a goal of getting 80 percent of its young people to earn a college credential — 40 percent for a four-year degree and 40 percent for an associate degree or industry certificate.
Percentage of Rogue Valley high school graduates who went on to college in 2011:
Ashland School District — 68 percent
Phoenix/Talent School District — 58 percent
Central Point School District — 56 percent
Medford School District — 54 percent
Grants Pass School District — 50 percent
Three Rivers School District — 49 percent
Rogue River School District — 48 percent
Eagle Point School District — 43 percent
Prospect School District — 33 percent
Statewide — 61 percent
But among Oregon's high school class of 2011, just 61 percent enrolled in a college or community college anywhere in the country by fall 2012, according to the nation's premier source of college enrollment data, the National Student Clearinghouse.
That means Oregon high schools trail the nation at propelling students into college. Sixty-eight percent of the nation's high school graduates enroll in college the fall after high school, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.
But only one of Oregon's 180 school districts that issue diplomas sends enough graduates on to college to reach the 80-percent target: Riverdale School District, serving Oregon's wealthiest neighborhood of Dunthorpe, which sent 86 percent of its 2011 graduates to college.
The vast majority of school districts have a long way to go, particularly rural districts, which have some of the lowest rates of college-bound students.
At 68 percent, Ashland had the highest number of graduates headed to college in Jackson County. Medford came in at 54 percent and Eagle Point was second from the bottom at 43 percent, according to the data.
Districts in Josephine County also fared poorly, finishing in the bottom third of the state. Grants Pass had the highest percentage in the county at 50 percent. Three Rivers sent 49 percent and Glendale 33 percent to college.
Principals, counselors and researchers all say schools play a big role in whether students go to college.
Students need rigorous high school classes that impart the reading, writing, math and analytical skills needed to cut it in college, said Oregon schools chief Rob Saxton in a recent interview with the Oregonian. For that reason, Tigard-Tualatin schools, where he was superintendent for seven years before taking the state post last summer, eliminated low-level math and science courses, he said.
Many Oregon students don't get enough rigor, sometimes because schools offer watered-down classes and sometimes because schools can't afford to offer a full slate of classes to juniors and seniors, Saxton said.
Medford School District Superintendent Phil Long doesn't see a lack of "rigor." Oregon's graduation requirements are amongst the highest in the nation, he said.
"We are much more rigorous than other states," Long said.
As an example, Long said students are required to pass two years of math courses past the algebra level. And they must test at high standards in these core classes to receive their diploma. In addition, Medford schools require seniors to complete a class project in order to graduate, a requirement that is beyond the state's mandates, he said.
"We have much higher standards than 30 years ago, and 30 years ago we were not graduating 100 percent of the students," said Long, alluding to "The Big Idea," a partnership between United Way of Jackson County, the Medford School District and Evergreen Elementary School in Cave Junction that has a goal of producing a 100-percent high school graduation rate for the class of 2020.
Having a 100-percent graduation goal, with 80 percent of those students going on to either a two-year college or a four-year university, is a good "aspirational goal," Long said. But the state must put its money where its wishes are, he added. To reach that goal, there must be better funding for K-12 education, and new colleges and universities will need to be built, Long said.
"I have been told this would require the equivalent of two Portland State Universities to be built in our state to accommodate all these graduates," Long said.
In Oregon, young men and Latino students are particularly likely to forgo college, figures show. Only 56 percent of males and 46 percent of Latinos in the class of 2011 took a college course within a year and a half of completing high school.
In all, 14,000 students in the class of 2011 didn't try college and are likely stuck working jobs such as sales clerk, security guard, waiter or parking-lot attendant, according to Brenda Turner, occupational economist with the Oregon Employment Department. Few such jobs pay more than $9.50 an hour, she said.
Counselors told the Oregonian that schools need to let students know they are expected to go to college and explain how they'll benefit from additional years of education. Then, particularly for those whose parents and siblings haven't gone to college, educators need to show teens and their parents the tangible, practical steps to get there.
"We are failing one in three in high school, a little more than half go on to college and way less earn degrees. Less than one percent get those degrees in engineering, science or math," Everson said.
Tina Mondale, school improvement director for the Eagle Point district, said the job of graduating college-bound seniors must begin in elementary and middle schools. Data shows that students who fall behind in their credits during freshman year are unlikely to graduate.
"The reality is it's not a high school problem. It's a system problem," Mondale said. "We've got to be improving across the system and not just at the high schools to improve graduation rates.
Southern Oregon must also improve its job market in order to provide college graduates with professional, family-wage jobs. Otherwise we are creating debt for students who may graduate college but will be "over-educated and under-employed," Long said.
"We do not generally see them (local graduates who go on to college) come back here," Long said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or firstname.lastname@example.org.