Preparing Students For College

The last decade has seen a shift in the focus of America's high schools from just getting students to graduate to proactively preparing students for college. However, a recently released study by the Center for American Progress and College Summit indicates that schools need access to much better data to be effective in their 21st century mission.

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High School Building

High school education has traditionally focused on building a solid foundation for students to graduate and enter the workforce. Institutions that emphasized readying kids for college were typically private, elite 'prep' schools. However, that was in an era when a high school degree was all that most people needed to pursue a career. These days, a college education is necessary for almost anyone to thrive. Recent statistics from the Census Bureau show that college graduates typically earn 74% more than people who only have a high school diploma. The benefits of college education go beyond salary too - a recent study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation indicates that college graduates are more likely to volunteer, vote, get regular exercise and encourage their own children to pursue postsecondary education. Having more college educated adults is even good for the community. According to a study by CEOs for Cities, for every 10% increase in the portion of a city's population that possesses a college degree, wages in the region raise 8% at all education levels.

It's clear that college has taken over the role of preparing students for an increasingly challenging and competitive workforce and that high school must shift to preparing students for college. Public schools across the country have already started to move in this direction with lots of encouragement from the Obama administration. The president recently expressed the ambitious goal of making the U.S. number one in the world for college graduates by 2020, supporting that challenge through a number of funding programs under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Preparing College Freshmen

Tracking 'Year 13'

Many schools have already started to implement programs to help kids prepare for college, such as Advanced Placement (AP) courses and volunteering programs. However, ''The Promise of Proficiency'', a recent study by the Center for American Progress and College Summit, indicates that where most high schools are failing is in tracking their graduates' success during the crucial first year in college. As the study's authors point out, without this information schools have no idea if the steps they're taking to ready their students for college are actually working.

According to the study, the two most important pieces of information that high schools should have are college enrollment rates among their students the first semester after graduation and college 'proficiency' rates, defined as the number of graduates who complete at least one year's worth of college credits applicable to a degree in their first two postsecondary years. Tracking - and following up on - this hard data offers invaluable feedback on how high schools could improve their college prep programs. For example, schools that can identify academic areas in which their graduates are struggling can adapt their curriculum to provide better support in those subjects. They can also improve student support by identifying areas such as navigating the financial aid system that can be challenging for incoming freshmen. Good 'year 13' data can also help college counselors assist students in finding a school that better matches their personal and academic needs, which, as a recent study on student engagement indicates, can be a crucial factor in how likely students are to succeed.

College Enrollment Rates in Chicago

From The Promise of Proficiency, page 14.

Some school districts are already seeing dramatic results from pairing postsecondary information gathering with responsive, systemic support systems. According to The Promise of Proficiency, the Chicago Public Schools are an exemplary success story. In 2003 they developed a postsecondary initiative designed to measure college enrollment rates and coordinate local resources to support and prepare high school students. As the graph above indicates, they've seen a steady increase in college enrollment in Chicago as a result.

Studying Hard

Developing New Tools

Some measures have already been put in place to help schools track students in 'year 13.' In 2004, many states started collecting longitudinal data following students progress from K-12 to postsecondary education. There is also a private company called the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) that offers useful student tracking data. Originally founded to provide enrollment verification for student loan providers, the NSC has recently developed the 'StudentTracker for High Schools.' The tool shows high schools when and at what college their graduates have enrolled, if they transfer, the subject of their major, their courses and whether or not they graduate. This year the NSC launched the Secondary Education Research Initiative in order to expand the StudentTracker for High Schools.

The authors of The Promise of Proficiency note that in order for high schools across the country to successfully implement postsecondary tracking and college preparation programs, it's important that the federal government come out in support of information gathering. The government can also help to disseminate data and train school leaders to interpret and utilize the information. Finally, the federal government can encourage school districts to take more initiative in this area by rewarding high schools that can demonstrate high levels of college proficiency among their graduates.

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