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Troubled by College Dropouts, High Schools Track Students Beyond Graduation

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While many high schools focus a lot of energy on getting students into college, admissions is only the first step. And especially when it comes to low-income students and those who are first in their family to attend college, many drop out long before they complete a degree.

Growing concern about this problem is sparking efforts in the K-12 realm to ensure better college success rates for high school graduates.

Take the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). It recently launched a Smart College Choices campaign that helps match local students with colleges that have a strong track record of success with DCPS graduates. In fact, the program is offering a welcome map to such higher education institutions. Only those with high graduation rates for DCPS students are being invited into local high schools to promote their universities.

“Families are hungry for information, students are hungry for information, they all want to succeed,” said Erin Bibo, a senior official at DCPS, during a recent Education Writers Association conference. “Given that access to information makes for better success, they’re very happy to have it.”

The campaign aims to educate students who might not have seen themselves on a pathway to college about their options, said Bibo, the deputy chief of college and career programs for DC’s public high schools. Recently, they added a counselor to every high school who meets with every student and creates a postsecondary plan, whether or not that involves college, so students remain aware of the next steps they have to take.

“It is very easy to say ‘oh college is not for everyone’ but at DCPS we believe every student gets to make that choice for themselves,” she said.

The DC schools system has focused more on the collection of data on student persistence, or whether these students who show up in the fall actually complete college. Bibo said they use this data to guide students toward schools who have higher success rates for their high school graduates.

Bibo said the Smart College Choices campaign is meant only to “shout out, not shame” higher education institutions. So, instead of calling out colleges that have a poor track record with helping DCPS graduates succeed, they only invite colleges to present at their schools that have a proven success rate. DCPS will also facilitate campus visits for students and their families — as long as it’s to schools that are well-matched.

Students, of course, are free to apply to schools that don’t fit the metrics used in the DCPS initiative. But the idea, Bibo said, is that universities should use hard data on outcomes to make the case to potential students on why their institution is a good choice, and make more of an effort to communicate with the K-12 world on what’s working.

Bibo notes that DCPS is fairly unusual in collecting this type of data. Most high schools have little to no information about their graduates once they leave their doors, and DCPS has hired the National Student Clearinghouse to collect data beyond broad demographics and specifically about their graduates.

Checking KIPP’s College Promise

Meanwhile, Danielle Dreilinger recently reported for the New Orleans Times-Picayune on efforts by the KIPP schools network to ensure its students succeed in college. (The final package, Higher Ground: KIPP Struggles to Lift New Orleans Grads Past Their Struggles, was produced with support from an EWA reporting fellowship.)

“High school graduation so often is presented as the end of the story, but KIPP has a promise of college and I wanted to see if that promise was going to materialize,” Dreilinger said during the EWA panel discussion.

Dreilinger said she became interested in reporting on students transitioning to college after reading colleagues’ stories at the Times-Picayune chronicling how some highly motivated students, most of whom were first in their families to attend college, were struggling and often dropped out in their first years.

Dreilinger followed a handful of promising KIPP New Orleans graduates who were valedictorians and athletes, as they transitioned into college. In all cases, the students were the first in their families to attend college. She expected to encounter “imposter syndrome,” where students were conflicted about whether they belonged on a college campus, but instead found that what was prohibiting students from finishing tended to be straight-forward financial barriers.

Transitioning into the college lifestyle presents a whole new series of challenges for first generation and low-income college students, who have to navigate a new system without the support network of parents who have the resources or internal knowledge of the system, Dreilinger said.

Some school districts have begun to address the issue with “intrusive advising,” where advisors will check in with students at various points in the year, she noted.

At one KIPP school in New Orleans, this takes the form of a “fairy godmother” adviser, who uses a stop light system to check in on the smallest dimensions of the college experience — applying for housing and classes, making appointments with the financial aid office — to make sure students stay on top of their responsibilities.

Mind the Gaps

The University of Chicago Consortium has been working on surveying the gaps between high school and college completion, and published research in 2013 on the transition from high school to college. Jenny Nagaoka, the consortium’s deputy director, said during the EWA panel that a lot of the conclusions they have drawn go against typical assumptions. She said that beyond race or gender or demographics, finances were always the strongest barrier in the fight for completing college. A lot has to do with lack of information about scholarship opportunities or assuming there’s no path for these students to attend college at all, she said.

In her research, Nagaoka came across a system put in place by Georgia State University she found particularly helpful in addressing complications that arise for first-generation college students. The system aims to better contextualize for families the massive amounts of information about colleges and universities.

For example, many first-generation college students are overwhelmed by the huge array of course offerings to choose from during their first semester. At Georgia State, they’ve developed a “Guided Pathways Through College” program that breaks down things like the courses needed for certain majors.

“You can’t just think because someone’s a valedictorian that student will succeed easily,” Nagaoka said.