Between learning loss from an interrupted spring semester and new pandemic-related financial struggles that families are facing, many students are canceling, delaying, or changing their plans to enroll in higher education. Students of color and those from low-income families are disproportionately impacted, and surveys indicate that they are changing their plans at even higher rates.
While there are a number of robust options for students to pursue after high school that will set them up for long-term economic opportunity and success, this challenging economic environment makes the transition to postsecondary education and training more important than ever. Disruptions and upheaval brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic across the education spectrum put more students at risk of falling through the cracks—particularly at vulnerable transition points, such as the transition from high school to higher education.
Survey information on students’ higher education plans is troubling, but the fact remains that we can’t fully understand or—more importantly—solve this problem if educators, administrators, and district leaders don’t know where gaps exist and, consequently, where additional supports are needed to help students succeed. Findings from a recent RAND study reveal that the vast majority of educators have no access to data about their students’ postsecondary outcomes or success, leaving them without an accurate understanding of where their students succeed or struggle. For instance, 63 percent of educators say they have no access to information about their students’ postsecondary enrollment. Quality, accurate, timely, and comprehensive education data—particularly around postsecondary transitions—must be prioritized.
Data collection, reporting, and use is something education leaders must focus on even as they navigate this admittedly challenging academic year. This is when access to good data matters the most. The Data Quality Campaign, where one of us is executive vice president, recently released guidance on the importance of state report cards amidst the ongoing effects of the pandemic, including indicators that can and still should be included on state report cards.
Among these indicators is the most obvious measure of postsecondary transition: postsecondary enrollment. However, even though many states report these data on their report cards, transparency of postsecondary enrollment reporting has a long way to go. In a recent effort to collect all publicly available state data on postsecondary enrollment, Education Strategy Group (ESG), where one of is a senior director, found that state-level disaggregated data (broken down by race/ethnicity and income status) are only available for thirty-two states and the District of Columbia; disaggregated school-level data, which took more than six months to obtain through state data requests, are only available for twenty-seven states.
This lack of publicly available data leaves vast numbers of students unaccounted for. Furthermore, this measure only captures higher education enrollment. States are woefully unequipped to capture military enlistment, apprenticeship enrollment, and direct engagement in the workforce at specified wage thresholds. As the array of postsecondary options diversifies, state mechanisms for capturing and reporting data must evolve as well.
Research shows that there are several key indicators of the likelihood of successfully transitioning to higher education. The only way we will see improvement on broader enrollment numbers is to focus our efforts on the most predictive momentum points in a student’s educational journey. These indicators are the focus of a new ESG report—From Tails to Heads: Building Momentum for Postsecondary Success—that digs into seven additional measures beyond postsecondary enrollment that provide information on students’ preparedness for, applications to, and enrollment in higher education and other postsecondary paths.
These “Momentum Metrics” include some newer measures that may be less familiar, such as high-quality pathway participation, college match, and gateway course completion. It’s important to continually expand which data we look at—and how we look at it—to gain a more nuanced understanding of where to target student supports. Looking at more nuanced measures ensures that the data we have actually answer our questions.
Harnessing the power of postsecondary preparation and transitions data can help states flip the script for the roughly 7,000 American high schools where a student of color or from a low-income family has less than a 50 percent chance of successfully transitioning to higher education. To enable this, state and district leaders will need to do the following:
Transparently report disaggregated data on students’ transitions to postsecondary education and training, military, and workforce. Most states have access to postsecondary enrollment information through the National Student Clearinghouse and their own P–20W data systems. Yet information about apprenticeship, military enlistment, and employment at family-sustaining wages has proved to be more difficult. But it’s possible. Pennsylvania’s Future Ready PA Index reports the percentage of each high school’s graduates that enroll in postsecondary education, enlist in the military, or enter the workforce within sixteen months.
Incorporate predictive indicators of students’ postsecondary preparation and success into state longitudinal data systems. Some of the highest-leverage metrics for student success are either stored in separate systems or not currently collected at the state level. Information such as students’ course grades and potential for advanced coursework are critical for monitoring whether students are on track to succeed in postsecondary education and training. Connecticut sends a letter to every tenth and eleventh grade student that has demonstrated “Advanced Placement Potential,” and has seen a dramatic rise in course-taking and success, especially among Hispanic students.
Convene educators and administrators across K–12 and higher education to review gaps and devise solutions for improvement. It will take a community effort to ensure each student—especially those from the most vulnerable populations—receives the assistance and guidance they deserve to help them realize, and potentially even expand, their postsecondary aspirations. Dallas Commit is an intermediary that partners with over ten school districts and multiple postsecondary institutions in the Dallas, Texas, region to offer individual student advising and case management support, as well as develop a data platform for tracking progress on such metrics as seamless enrollment. They help organize cross-district and -sector conversations to identify bright spots and examine common issues, grounded in data.
As leaders continue to navigate the pandemic and recovery, states and districts can and must use education data in new and innovative ways to help more students get to and through postsecondary education. More transparent data means more targeted, informed, and impactful support for students. Covid-19 has put many students at risk of falling through the cracks; now is the time to use better education data to fill those cracks to build bridges to success.