We Need to Change the Way High Schools Are Preparing Students for College

Jan 18, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Elaine Allensworth

Maureen Kelleher’s recent piece, Another Reminder That We Can’t Hold Schools Accountable Without Giving Them Support is exactly right, particularly when considering college preparation and college-going. Today, many of us take for granted that preparing students for college is a goal—if not the goal—of public high schools. Historically, this was not the case. At no time in U.S. history have public schools been designed to prepare all students for college. So, while the goals for our schools have changed, our model has not. We expect schools to deliver new and improved outcomes without adequate data and resources on proven college-readiness milestones, and it shows. Less than half of U.S. students meet state standards measuring readiness for college, and only a quarter of high schoolers who take the ACT meet all the test’s benchmarks for college preparedness. Such outcomes shouldn’t come as a surprise. We’ve been expecting high schools to do a job they’ve never done before. Traditionally, high school students received an education designed to prepare them for entry-level jobs or a specific trade in a largely manufacturing-based labor economy. As recently as 2002, more than 2.5 million students, including 46 percent of Black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students, attended high schools where fewer than 60 percent of freshmen went on to earn a diploma. If students dropped out of high school, it was disappointing, but not a cause of real concern; they could walk into a factory without a diploma and land a well-paying job.

The Knowledge Economy

The knowledge economy has changed everything. Jobs for high school dropouts have all but disappeared, and jobs for high school graduates no longer provide a pathway to middle-class comforts. Projections show that, by 2020, more than 1 in 3 jobs will require at least a bachelor’s degree. A college degree has become the most reliable gateway to prosperity: students who earn a college degree are five times likelier to escape poverty. They’re also healthier and happier: less likely to commit crimes or suffer from illness, and more likely to volunteer, vote—even live longer. Students’ aspirations reflect these facts. The share of high schoolers nationally who reported they aspire to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher doubled in recent decades, from 40 percent in 1980 to 87 percent by 2015. However, bridging the gap between students’ college aspirations and attainment has proven difficult. While the vast majority of our nation’s high school students aspire to earn a college degree, less than 1 in 3 succeed. We need to close this gap, and that means the role of high schools has to change dramatically. The goalposts have moved and now we need to update the playbooks. Now is the time to get concrete about what will move more students down the field toward college.

Getting To and Through College

The city of Chicago is striving to do just that. In the past decade, Chicago has seen its high school graduation rate improve significantly, from just 57 percent in 2006 to 74 percent last year. It also saw its college enrollment rate rise, from 33 percent in 2006 to 42 percent in 2014. College graduation rates, however, have remained frustratingly stagnant. In light of this, the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute (UEI) developed an online tool designed to give every high school in Chicago real-time access to data on their students’ progress along the path to and through college. The tool enables educators and families to see how many of their students, and which specific student groups, are reaching the milestones that research shows matter most for college success. The tool also links all Chicago public high schools to college outcomes for the first time, providing the full picture of students’ educational progress, from ninth grade through college graduation. At the same time, UChicago’s Network for College Success is equipping high school leaders from across Chicago with the training and resources to put data on their students’ high school and college attainment into practice. This approach has begun bearing fruit. Five years ago, Chicago’s George Washington High School discovered only 35 percent of its graduating seniors had enrolled in college. In response, school leaders launched a postsecondary leadership team and recruited every teacher in the building to take a more active role in discussing college choice with their students. The team meets monthly to review data on students’ college and financial aid applications and alerts students when their GPA dips below the 3.0 threshold necessary to be admitted to many four-year colleges and receive financial-aid offers. Teachers participate in an annual parent “phone-a-thon” to engage families in discussions about academic progress and postsecondary plans. And the school’s tagline, “Where college is the mission,” is emblazoned on every flier. All of these efforts have helped propel Washington’s college enrollment from 35 percent in 2011 to 59 percent last year, and not at the expense of student achievement: Scores on the ACT are up and [pullquote position="right"]students are getting accepted into more selective colleges. No small feat.[/pullquote] Success stories like George Washington’s show high schools can organize in a way that helps more students make it to and through college. But they can’t be expected to take on this herculean task in isolation. They need research that identifies the milestones that matter most for students’ college success. They need access to data that illuminates how their students are progressing on those milestones. And they need capacity-building resources that help them put that research and data into action. Only then, will we close the enormous gap between our students’ college aspirations—and future economic vitality—and our reality.

Elaine Allensworth

Elaine Allensworth is the Lewis-Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, a unit of the University’s Urban Education Institute. The UChicago Consortium conducts research of high technical quality that can inform and assess policy and practice in the Chicago Public Schools and beyond.

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