Chronic absenteeism has increased — but going to school is key to college and career readiness. And, FAFSA issues are forcing students to make tough choices.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

How chronic absenteeism could hurt college-going

I wanted to zoom in this week on absenteeism numbers. New data from the American Enterprise Institute show that about a quarter of public-school students were considered chronically absent last school year, compared to 15% before the pandemic. I, like many others, first learned about this shift in this very jarring New York Times story. 

The Times also made a handy searchable tool for checking on your district. The rates of absenteeism are even worse than the national average in some of the districts where our reporters work: 

  • 56% in Cleveland, Ohio 
  • 40% in Chicago 
  • 37% in Durham, N.C. 

I’ve seen a lot of coverage of these findings. But what’s been missing in the discussion, in my view, is what chronic absenteeism — missing more than 10% of school days — means for student outcomes down the line. I wanted to dig into this: How does chronically missing school affect a student’s readiness for college? 

We know that absenteeism leads to problems for students. Studies have found that there’s “a clear and consistent relationship between early attendance and later achievement.” 

As students miss school more regularly, their performance weakens. High school freshmen who miss more than two weeks of school fail, on average, at least two classes — no matter what their test scores were like when they arrived, according to a study from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. And, chronically absent students are more likely to drop out and, thus, less likely to graduate high school, the Helios Education Foundation found. (Helios is a supporter of Open Campus.) 

Plus, academic performance isn’t the only indicator of whether someone is on track for college. The National College Attainment Network says other college-readiness skills include perseverance, critical thinking, and teamwork. 

“The habits that they’re picking up at school are often the ones that they need to stick with if they’re going to stick in college,” Anthony Schuette, a research assistant at Trellis Strategies, told me. (Trellis Strategies is a postsecondary-focused research and consulting firm.) 

There are clear equity gaps. In 2022, 39% of Black students and 36% of Hispanic students repeatedly missed school, compared to 16% of Asian students and 24% of white students, AEI found. 

And, absenteeism is most common in low-achieving, high-poverty districts, according to the data. Students from those districts are the ones who are most likely to face financial barriers to going to college, absenteeism aside, Schuette told me. 

There are some strategies that could help. Minneapolis Public Schools, for example, has a “We Want You Back” team that spots students who have stopped coming to school, identifies obstacles keeping them out, and creates pathways back, Colleen Kaibel, director of student retention and recovery, told me in an email.

The district also talks to students about the relationship between attendance, success in school, and opportunities after high-school graduation. The district views regular attendance as a “vital component” of college and career readiness, she said.

“By speaking with students about how attendance is directly tied to learning and getting a career they’ll enjoy, the more comfortable they are with seeing post-secondary options as valuable and attainable for themselves,” Kaibel said.

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The power of local beat reporting

A crowd of pro-Palestinian demonstrators march Wednesday at The University of Texas at Austin. State police officers march behind them. Credit: Julius Shieh for The Texas Tribune

I wrote about how the campus protests around the country underscore the importance of local beat reporting on higher education. Here’s a snippet:

Recently, critics have called out the media for putting too much emphasis on arrests and confrontations. It “fits a general pattern of protest coverage that focuses more on the drama of the disruption rather than the underlying reasons behind it,” journalism professor Danielle K. Brown wrote in NiemanLab this week. And the American public is left “badly informed about both the war itself and the movement against it,” Jill Filipovic said inThe Atlantic.

The kind of local reporting we’re fostering around America is a solution to these problems.

Our reporters’ work is carefully observed, not inflammatory. They state things plainly: In Texas, our reporter noted that “Last week’s protest showed no signs of violence before police got involved.”

And, they step back from the scene, tracking the history of student activism at the University of South Florida and explaining what divestment really entails. This type of coverage helps explain the why behind this movement: Students are demanding their universities divest from weapons manufacturers and companies doing business in Israel.

Our reporters aren’t merely dropping in to cover a controversy. Once the encampments clear and media coverage of them fades, our local reporters will still be there.

Read the rest here.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Lavon Robinson, a college counselor at Downers Grove South High School, talks to a student about her decision to enroll in a college without knowing how much it will cost. Lisa Kurian Philip / WBEZ

From Chicago: The confusion, complications, and delays stemming from the new FAFSA this year means that some high school seniors are picking colleges without having financial aid offers in hand. Lisa Kurian Philip at WBEZ met with one such student, as well as with Lavon Robinson, a college counselor trying to help.

“Are students going to wait to make the best financial decision,” he said, “or are they just going to choose early and choose colleges where they are going to have to take out more private loans?”

From Tampa Bay: Ian Hodgson at our partner The Tampa Bay Times also has a smart FAFSA story out this week. Here’s one key stat from his analysis: The combination of lagging submissions, rejected applications and miscalculated results means that completed, usable applications are down by at least 35% in Florida compared to last year.

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