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Freshmen will get an intense new program

NU plan to aid Boston students

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 18, 2008
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Northeastern University will establish a special one-year program for Boston public high school graduates who are not ready for college, as part of a city initiative to boost the low rate of local students who earn higher degrees.

The program aims to address a problem that higher education officials know too well: Many students who ultimately quit college stumble during their freshman year, when students begin self-exploration and experimentation while facing more academic rigor than in their high school classes.

The announcement coincided with the release of a report sponsored by the city and the Boston Private Industry Council that showed that about two-thirds of Boston students who enrolled in college after graduating in 2000 failed to earn degrees within seven years. The findings cast a shadow over the school system's recent success in exceeding the national rate of graduates who get into college.

"It's easy for colleges and universities to take students from Boston public schools," Joseph E. Auon, president of Northeastern University, said at a press conference yesterday morning, surrounded by city and business leaders. "What is most difficult is making them succeed. . . . It's unacceptable that we have those kinds of graduation rates."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said that Northeastern's new program will complement his initiative to boost college graduation rates by 50 percent for this year's high school seniors and to double the rate for current sophomores. The Boston Foundation is donating $1 million to aid the effort, which will include expanding several nonprofit groups that help Boston students get into college and continue working with them once enrolled.

Offering high school graduates an additional year of study before they enter college is not a new idea, but Northeastern's program would stand apart because students would earn college credit for successfully completed courses.

Aoun said the earned credits should equate to a full-freshman year of college, enabling students to move on to a sophomore year at Northeastern or other colleges participating in the program.

In fact, officials describe the one-year program as an intensive freshman year. Although details are still being worked out, students would probably spend much of their day on campus, receiving extra tutoring. At other times, they would work at an internship. The time commitment would be sharply higher than for most freshmen, who spend just a few hours a week in class.

A few dozen Boston high graduates would participate in the first year of the program, but it would expand to 200 students in subsequent years. The university has not yet determined whether students would apply directly to the program or through a partnership with city high schools. The caliber of the students would probably be below that of the typical applicant admitted to the university, officials say.

To keep costs down, students would live at home. The university's financial aid program would cover the tuition costs for most students.

Education specialists said the program is a good first step to encourage higher education institutions to better serve low-income students.

"The US has a poor track record of moving low-income people through two- and four-year colleges," said Lili Allen, program director for the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit research and advocacy group devoted to improving education and the workforce.

The study released yesterday, which was prepared by Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies, revealed that 56.1 percent of the class of 2000 who enrolled in four-year private colleges graduated and 34.7 percent who enrolled in four-year public colleges did.

The rate for two-year public colleges was the worst, 12.5 percent.

The findings sent ripples through the city's business, education, and political establishments yesterday. Councilor at Large Michael F. Flaherty called for a City Council hearing on the report, as well as on an idea he has proposed to address the problem by having city high schools participate in a national early college program.

"It's alarming," Flaherty said of the dismal college graduation rates. "The city has failed its children by not adequately preparing them to succeed in college."

Encouraging public high schools and colleges to work together is a high priority for Governor Deval Patrick. Menino and Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson have also been promoting partnerships between the city's schools and local universities.

There is no guarantee that the intensive program will succeed, Aoun said, but he is confident that the extra support and the inspiration of a college setting will help students to earn their degrees. "We are going to take a risk," he said, "but it's a calculated risk."

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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