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By Sarah Hauer May 27, 2016

Is it true that only half of Milwaukee Public Schools students go on to college?

What is behind the "skills gap" that business and civic leaders often say inhibits economic progress in the Milwaukee metropolitan area?

Milwaukee Area Technical College President Vicki Martin points to a low percentage of Milwaukee public high school students going on to college as one factor.

Martin spoke May 12, 2016 on a WisPolitics panel about narrowing the skills gap, along with Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy.

Kleefisch first described the skills gap saying, "the folks that employers are seeking don’t necessarily represent the skill sets that those job seekers actually have."

Then Martin picked up the mic -- and the theme.

"So contributing to that gap, or the mismatch as you outlined, is the fact that we have a lot of folks not even going into the college environment," Martin said. "We found out in our community, for example, in Milwaukee high schools only 50 percent were going on to two- or four-year institutions."

There are multiple high school options in Milwaukee, when you factor in choice and charter schools. But Martin was focusing on Milwaukee Public Schools, so we will as well.

Is it true that half of all those who complete MPS enroll in a two- or four-year college program?

We decided to check it out.

The numbers

When we asked Martin for backup on the claim, her team sent us to the Department of Public Instruction’s WISEdash database.

The database matches information on those who complete high school with college-level enrollment figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit group that tracks students and provides data to local governments and other entities.

The center collects enrollment data from more than 3,300 institutions across the nation that account for 96 percent of all students in two- and four-year college programs.  

The most recent data is for students who completed high school at the end of the 2013-’14 academic year.

In fall of that year, some 37.7 percent of MPS completers -- a category that includes, for instance, those who get a G.E.D. -- enrolled in a two- or four-year program. Another 12.6 percent enrolled at a later date. That puts enrollment in college at just above 50 percent for the group.

In comparison, 66.3 percent of high school completers statewide enrolled in a two- or four-year program. Over time, of course, students from each group continue to begin college programs, so the percentage keeps growing.

For instance, for students who completed MPS in 2012, the percentage is now 59.6 percent.

To be sure, the data has its limits. The National Clearinghouse Research Center only tracks students after completing high school -- so those who don’t finish high school aren’t included.

In MPS, about 60 percent of all students complete high school in four years and 70 percent finish in six. That means fewer than half of all students who attended MPS wind up enrolling in an institution of higher learning.

Here’s a rough calculation to account for students who did not complete high school.

For the 2014 cohort, 60.9 percent finished high school on time from MPS. Of those, just about half have enrolled in additional education. So, of all students in that group, about 30 percent have gone on to higher learning.

So, from that perspective, Martin’s statement actually overstates the number. In other words, the challenge of closing the skills gap is even bigger than she presented.

Our rating

Martin said only 50 percent of students from Milwaukee public high schools "go on to a two- or four-year college."

Data backs her claim, though the method used dramatically understates how few students actually pursue higher education given the low graduation rate in MPS.

For a statement that is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, we rate Martin’s claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Email exchange with Kathleen Hohl, communications and events director, Milwaukee Area Technical College, May 2016.

Email exchange with Tom McCarthy, communications director, Department of Public Instruction, May 2016.

Phone interview with Joe Yeado, senior researcher, Public Policy Forum, May 25, 2016.

Department of Public Instruction, About the data - post secondary enrollment.

Department of Public Instruction, About the data - High school completion.

Department of Public Instruction, WISEdash post secondary enrollment, March 2016.

Department of Public Instruction, WISEdash high school completions.

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