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The road to College Signing Day starts in middle school

May 1 is decision time for graduating high school seniors. Today is the day that most selective colleges and universities set as the deadline for admitted students to say whether they’ll enroll and commit with a deposit.

First Lady Michelle Obama is marking the day at Wayne State University in Detroit as part of her Reach Higher initiative to encourage more high schoolers to go on to college.

Last year, more than 68 percent of the country’s high school grads were enrolled in college for the 2014 fall semester.

But with a national on-time high school graduation rate of 81 percent in 2013 — and no national data available yet for 2014 — that probably means that about 55 percent of the students who were high school freshmen in 2010 made it all the way to college enrollment.

A growing body of research shows the work to get more students to the college starting line can start as early as middle school.

Federal research in Oregon released this week found that eighth- and ninth-grade attendance and GPA are strong predictors of whether a student will graduate from high school on time.

They found that more than three quarters of eighth graders who made it to school less than 80 percent of the time did not graduate on time, including 33 percent who dropped out altogether. More than half of ninth graders with attendance rates below 80 percent graduated late while 32 percent dropped out. About two-thirds of eighth and ninth graders with GPA’s below a 2.0 either graduated late or dropped out.

Researchers at the University of Chicago credit a focus on indicators like these — specifically intervening with ninth graders who fail one or more core courses or who make it to class on fewer than 90 percent of school days — with dramatic and steady increases in the on-time graduation rate at Chicago public high schools.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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