“Everybody’s college material. Every student has to be college material.” – State Education Department spokesman David Connerty-Marin

Gendron: Diploma should require college application

AUGUSTA – Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said Friday that she wants every high school senior to apply to college before being eligible for a diploma.

Gendron is proposing changing state rules on diploma requirements, a move that must be approved by legislators.

If passed in the upcoming legislative session, the change would affect the class of 2009, but Gendron is urging high schools to voluntarily make the change this year.

The goals are to raise the number of Maine youths going to college and promote education opportunities for every student.

It used to be that Maine high schoolers knew whether they were considered college material. That climate has improved, but more must be done, education department spokesman David Connerty-Marin said.

“Everybody’s college material,” he said. “Every student has to be college material. If they don’t end up going to college, they still need to be college material, because the skills for success in the work force need to be the same.”

While 85 percent of high school seniors say they intend to enroll in college, fewer do, Gendron said. According Maine Compact for Higher Education statistics, only 50 percent attend college in the fall after their graduation. Filling out a college application is a critical step in helping more get there, Gendron said.

Lewiston High School Principal Gus LeBlanc said Friday he has mixed feelings about the proposal.

“I’m not sure we should be encouraging students to apply to college who don’t intend to go. That’s really not appropriate of the college admissions process,” LeBlanc said. “I understand what she’s trying to get at,” boosting aspirations. “I agree with that. We’re doing that. Work by our guidance counselors and aspirations lab (director) Joan Macri has led to higher aspirations.”

Eighty-six percent of Lewiston’s Class of 07 is now in college, up from 40 percent a few years ago, LeBlanc said. But LeBlanc said he’s not sure Gendron’s plan will boost enrollment numbers. “It might,” he said.

Gendron said she’s basing her proposal on a resolve from House Speaker Glenn Cummings that encourages, but does not mandate, high schools to make applying to college part of graduation requirements.

Cummings got his idea from Poland High School, the first in Maine to make applying to college part of its requirements.

Poland Principal Bill Doughty agrees with taking Poland’s idea statewide, as long as the state defines college broadly. College should include four- and two-year colleges, and also career schools such as cosmetology, he said. “Some kind of higher education for these kids graduating is really necessary,” Doughty said.

But high schools need more state money to make applying for college meaningful, he said.

Poland has three guidance counselors for 575 students, one or one-half more than the state’s funding formula calls for, Doughty said. Poland has also created teams of students that meet daily with a teacher for all four years. Among topics covered is the college application process.

Getting kids ready “does take time,” Doughty said. If resources aren’t there, then the new rule would “simply becomes a bureaucratic requirement.”

Connerty-Marin said the state has already increased taxpayer money for education by 38 percent in the past four years. The funding formula doesn’t mandate where schools spend it, he said.

He agreed that requiring students to fill out college applications is only a piece of the puzzle. It will take a range of action, Connerty-Marin said, including rigorous courses for all students, convincing all high schoolers to consider higher education, and making clear that they are college material.

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