So we're doing better (what a relief), but, yikes, still falling behind?

The fifth in the series of biennial national and state-by-state report cards for higher education is out this month. Ohio, like much of the nation, is doing better, as usual, but not good enough.

Technically, it's called National Report Card on Higher Education but we like the short version-Measuring Up 2008 (see here). The report is issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Much of the report seems same-old, same-old, although, like a really frightening horror movie it still scares the stuffing out of you each time you read it. It certainly ought to be scary reading for Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut, who has ambitions of expanding enrollment in the state's colleges and universities by 230,000 students (see here). The new report reveals plenty of roadblocks a very able Fingerhut will have to circumvent, including an already prostrate state budget for the next biennium. 

For Ohio (see here), the report finds that eighth graders perform well in science, math, and reading but don't write well at all; blacks still lag substantially behind whites in high-school graduation rates, college enrollment, and in attaining college degrees. We get a B-minus for student preparation.

Overall college-enrollment rates for Ohio high schoolers are at the national average. The chances of a high-school freshman enrolling in college by age 19 are fair but adult enrollment is low. What's really disturbing, although not surprising, is that college is completely out of reach for a poor family in Ohio, which, according to the report, must devote 57 percent of its income to college expenses, even with tuition assistance and other financial aid. For families generally, the share of income needed to pay for college has risen substantially in Ohio.

Tuition and fees at Ohio State University, for example, have increased 98 percent since 2000-2001, according to the Board of Regents. At Ohio University, they're up 75 percent. In Ohio, students and families also pay more than families in the best-performing states. So we get an F for affordability, although so does Massachusetts, who earned an A for student preparation. The state is looking at such a deep budget hole it, likely, will be impossible to maintain even inadequate levels of help to needy college students.

The Measuring Up reports were inaugurated in 2000 and this year's edition has a number of new data sources and compares results over time. All this measures more accurately what is becoming the mantra of the results of American K-12 education-we're getting better at preparing our children for college but other nations are getting better even faster and we're falling behind-just as we were in the 2006 report.

One of the best parts of the Measuring Up reports are the graphs, which are done well and provide a huge amount of quick and pertinent information. Here's what the 2008 report tells us overall: American students are more likely than in previous years to take courses that prepare them for college but too many students are still graduating high school unprepared to be first-year college students. In the last decade, the likelihood that a high-school freshman will enroll in college by age 19 (roughly four years later) has increased only from 39 percent to 42 percent. And the proportion of 18-to-24 year olds enrolled in college has increased even less. College enrollment for working age adults is declining nationally. Once enrolled, the actual completion rate for American students is poor, according to the report. See a table listing all the index scores used in the report here.

There's a healthy economics lesson in this issue. As has been reported extensively in recent press accounts (see here), colleges and universities are pricing students out of the market. Higher-ed costs, on average, are rising faster than family incomes, food, medical care, and housing. The increase has made it more difficult for many students to attend college and could very readily explain the drop in adult enrollment. More students also are borrowing to attend higher ed institutions.

"State leaders face a crucial option for higher education policy as they balance their budgets," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center, summing up the new report. "They can respond as most states have in the past, by continuing to allow tuition to rise dramatically and passing the brunt of the financial distress onto students and families. Or they can establish state policies for tuition and financial aid that balance the financial burden among the state, the institutions of higher education, and students and families. This second option protects educational opportunity at a time when the states and the nation need a better-educated citizenry."

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