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Chancellor's Column - September 2004  

Keeping Our Kids From Falling Into "the Gap"

There are many things to worry about when you are a parent. Even with six grown children, I still find myself being concerned that they are well-prepared and can find ways to achieve their dreams.

All of Oklahoma’s children should be able to reach their goals, and more and more, the path to achievement goes through a college or university. A college education provides a better chance to get good jobs and be more financially secure. Family income tends to increase when the education level goes up, and the jobs that are growing the fastest require at least an associate degree.

The fact is that there is a significant lifetime earnings gap between high school graduates and those with an associate degree or higher. Our challenge is to keep our kids from falling into that gap.

Our growing college enrollment figures are good news for the state. But when we look at the numbers more deeply, we find an alarming number of students who don’t go from high school on to college.

And it’s not because they don’t want to. In fact, 94 percent of students in the ninth through 12th grades in our state say they plan to attend college, but the college-going rate this year is only 56 percent.

By tracking ninth graders in Oklahoma, we’ve learned that 73 percent of them go on to graduate from high school. That’s above the national average of 68 percent, but our state lags behind in the percent of students that actually enter college, stay in school and graduate.

There are many reasons for this, of course. A big factor is college preparation. Too many of our students enter college unprepared for college work. In fact, 36 percent of college freshmen straight out of high school require at least one remedial course, and students who take remedial courses drop out of college at a much higher rate than other students.

Parents can help keep their students out of the achievement gap by making certain they take the college core curriculum in high school. More about the core curricula and other important information is now available for eighth through 12th graders at every school in the state. Check with your high school counselors if you haven’t seen these important college preparation materials prepared by the State Regents.

Our college preparation efforts don’t end there. We help middle school and high school students with college planning programs like GEAR UP and EPAS, an assessment system that includes the EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT tests. These are all programs that can help parents help their kids.

We are also working to keep college affordable. Interest continues to grow in the OHLAP scholarship program for qualified students whose family incomes are under $50,000. And we partner with Oklahoma State Treasurer Robert Butkin to offer the Oklahoma College Savings Plan, an easy, tax-advantaged way to begin saving for college.

Our state has a well-deserved reputation for having a higher education system that is affordable and accessible. I urge all families with children to start planning for college now.

The U.S. Department of Education awarded Oklahoma with a state GEAR UP grant totaling $20.5 million in August 1999. The grant has been matched by more than $25 million from state and partner resources. With the addition of year six federal funding, Oklahoma's GEAR UP program has received approximately $25 million in federal funds since 1999. GEAR UP receives 50 percent of total funding from the federal government and 50 percent from other organizations.