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Conn College pebble seeks biggest splash it can

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published December 15. 2013 4:00AM

One of the great parts of this job is the interesting people I get to interview and last week that included Leo I. Higdon Jr., who at year's end finishes a very successful seven-year run as president of Connecticut College. Higdon noted his meeting with The Day's editorial board in the final days of his tenure seemed appropriate since a visit with the board was among his first introductions to New London when he arrived in 2006.

As documented in an extensive article by Jennifer McDermott in last Sunday's Day, upon arriving Higdon set as his primary target achieving an aspiration held by faculty, students and staff - assuring that Conn College became viewed as among the best liberal arts colleges in the nation.

In pursuit of that vision, the president led a fundraising campaign that exceeded its ambitious $200 million goal by $11 million. As a result, the college has invested $90 million to improve campus facilities and programs and expanded access to scholarships.

With Higdon's achievements well documented by the prior reporting, I took the opportunity to obtain his views on the dichotomy facing U.S. education, one which finds quality colleges such Conn attracting higher achieving students than ever before, while at the same time U.S. high school students perform poorly by international standards and drop-out rates remain troublingly high.

Just under half of Conn students in the Class of 2017 are products of a public education, the rest come from private, religious or foreign schools. Sixty-two percent finished in the top 10 percent of their class, 94 percent in the top 20 percent. Only 35 percent of applicants gained acceptance.

"I think we are in a blessed position because we attract these students," said Higdon.

However, the nation as a whole has to do much better, he said.

Every year more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States, producing a graduation ranking placing it 22nd out of 27 developed countries. High school dropouts commit about 75 percent of crimes and on average will earn about a million dollars less than a college graduate over a lifetime, a differential expected to rapidly widen.

While trending in the right direction, the 7.4 percent drop-out rate remains far too high and in many urban centers drop-out rates of 40 percent are common.

Many of those who do graduate seem ill prepared to compete with their international peers. In the most recent PISA (Program for International Assessment) rankings, the United States finished 36th in Math, 28th in Science and 24th in Reading.

While these problems may seem far removed from the high achievers who matriculate at Conn, Higdon contends that they are not, because the United States collectively cannot achieve its full economic and creative potential if so many lag behind.

"You can talk about the Connecticut Colleges of the world and the kinds of men and women that we attract, who are truly extraordinary given the numbers of applicants that we have," Higdon said. "But if I am sitting there, and I am the (U.S.) president, this is a serious national issue."

He wonders if there is the political will to undertake the comprehensive approach and investment necessary - from the training of teachers, to the reorganization of schools and classrooms, to assuring students have the tools they need to achieve in the earliest grades.

"It is going to require a significant effort and investment for us to try to turn this around. We always struggle with the investment that we need in terms of other competing forces. If we don't do it, I worry that this will continue to be a drag on the economy."

"I get frustrated about it," he said.

In the meantime students and faculty from Conn College - "a small, little pebble in a very big lake" - volunteer in high numbers to work with students in New London and other local schools, "doing what they can, where they can and finding it very rewarding," he said.

It is, perhaps, all any individual can do.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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