In a guest column that ran on this page last Thursday (“Education beyond high school is essential for students’ success”), local education advocates delivered a message that should alarm us, then move us to action.

While the bulk of the 740,000 jobs that will open in Washington state by 2021 will require education beyond high school — a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree, an industry certificate or an apprenticeship — just 37 percent of high school graduates in this part of the state will get such a credential by the time they are 26, the column informed us.

The reality is even more grim for students of color. Just 24 percent of Latino students from North Central Washington in the class of 2015 completed education or training after high school.

Our economy demands more. If we don’t find a way to get more of our kids into some form of education after high school, local employers will be forced to import skilled employees from out of the state or out of the country. And this is not happening in some distant future.

A report released last year by the nonprofit Our Valley Our Future found that local employers are already struggling to find and keep good employees. Thirty percent indicated “significant difficulty” in making hires. That may be because just 10 percent of today’s jobs require only a high school diploma.

This is not to say that everyone needs to attend a traditional four-year college in order to land a good-paying job. That’s not what our regional economy requires. But almost all jobs now require some form of training beyond high school.

So, why aren’t more students continuing their education after the twelfth grade? For many, it’s a money issue, Dr. Gene Sharratt told me. He’s one of the authors of the column, the past executive director for the Washington Student Achievement Council, and is currently pushing for expanded access to higher education with the advocacy group College Promise Coalition.

With the cost of attending college on the rise, parents and students are forced to make tough choices. Student loan debt has become “a huge albatross across the country,” Sharratt said. Are young people willing to saddle themselves with decades of debt for that degree?

To get over the cost obstacle and get more kids into college and certification programs, Sharratt and his College Promise Coalition lobby for increased financial aid funding for programs like the State Need Grant (SNG). There are currently 18,000 students who qualify for financial help through the program but receive none because the funds just aren’t there. One of the College Promise Coalition’s goals for the upcoming legislative session is fully funding the SNG.

Sharratt also thinks more families should consider sending their students to community and technical colleges, which offer direct paths to careers that won’t leave students with massive debt. As a bonus, these schools typically have deep connections with local employers.

Of course, before a student can move on to a postsecondary program, they need to earn a high school diploma. The good news is that an awful lot of Wenatchee students are getting those diplomas. In fact, the Wenatchee School District announced it achieved a 91.5-percent on-time graduation rate last year, its highest rate ever. This is worth celebrating.

But the school district also has high remediation rates, which means that many students who graduate from Wenatchee High School are academically underprepared for what comes next.

According to the state’s figures, between 60 and 64 percent of Wenatchee grads who went on to public state institutions in 2016 had to take remedial courses. That’s the most recent data available, and those numbers are way above the state average. They also represent an increase of more than 10 percent over the previous school year.

So while graduation rates are up in Wenatchee, remediation rates are up, too, and that’s an indicator that too many of our graduates are not leaving high school ready for college or other basic skill training courses. The data makes clear: This has to change.

 

Kelli Scott’s email address is kellikscott@gmail.com