A High-Poverty High School in Tennessee Is Using National Student Clearinghouse Data to Fuel a Revolution in Smart College Counseling
In a modest and disorganized office at Howard School, where poverty rates are high, Nicholas Siler, a college counselor, wields a powerful software tool that significantly increases the likelihood of his students successfully completing college.
I observe as Siler pulls up an individual student’s data on his user-friendly dashboard. This data unveils information that was previously unknown just two years ago. For instance, Siler can now instantly identify colleges with graduation rates above 50 percent for black Howard alumni.
Siler is at the forefront of a revolution so fresh that many high schools across the nation are unaware that such a revolution is taking place. By combining robust data and effective college matching strategies, counselors are able to find colleges where students are more likely to earn a degree. This approach moves college counseling away from outdated methods where students were often sent to colleges with high rates of failure.
These practices were initially pioneered by top charter school networks, which successfully increased college graduation rates for their low-income, predominantly minority graduates – students who previously struggled in college. Now, some traditional school districts are adopting these practices. Consequently, high schools will soon be categorized into two groups: those that offer intelligent, data-driven counseling backed by alumni track records provided by the National Student Clearinghouse, and those that do not.
At Hamilton County schools, the impact of these practices is remarkable. College enrollment has significantly increased to 73 percent, and the six-year college graduation rates currently stand at 55 percent. These figures would typically be expected in a much more affluent district.
How unique is Chattanooga’s situation? Several school districts, such as Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and Atlanta, are becoming increasingly skilled at utilizing Clearinghouse data for their counselors. They are often supported by non-profit organizations that assist in analyzing the data. In Chattanooga, the forward-thinking Public Education Foundation fulfills this role.
However, these districts are exceptions. Most school districts are navigating blindly. According to a survey conducted by RAND, only one-third of principals, who comprise a nationally representative sample of 750, have access to individual student data regarding college enrollment.
Why is this information crucial? Without knowing which of their students have enrolled in college, schools cannot tailor their instruction and counseling to improve outcomes. Principals might be aware of the problem, but they lack the necessary tools to address it.
The same problem exists in regards to college remediation classes: only 15 percent of principals have individual student data on who ended up in remedial courses, which can redirect vulnerable students who cannot afford to take non-credit classes.
Again, the lack of tools prevents the resolution of this issue.
Lastly, the survey demonstrated that less than one-fifth of school leaders knew which of their students successfully earned a bachelor’s degree within six years – a crucial data point for any district that takes responsibility for their alumni’s future.
In all three areas – enrollment, remediation, and graduation – more school leaders have access to aggregated data about their alumni. However, without individual data, such as knowing which students have succeeded or failed, school leaders cannot implement effective strategies to improve these rates.
One reason K-12 leaders hesitate to tackle this issue is because high schools traditionally do not consider college success to be part of their mission. Isn’t it the responsibility of students, parents, and universities? We already have enough tasks to handle!
While it is true that high schools already face numerous responsibilities, they have no choice but to embrace the future in an era where college is seen as the new high school. Many middle-skill jobs that previously did not require a college degree now do.
In Chattanooga, Siler cannot imagine being a college counselor without access to this data. As an example, if a Howard senior is seeking a historically black college within a reasonable driving distance, Siler confidently recommends Talladega College in Alabama. Why? While federal records indicate a 50 percent graduation rate for low-income students, Siler possesses insider data from the Clearinghouse that reveals a success rate of 87 percent for Howard graduates at Talladega. It’s a promising option!
The movement to hold school districts accountable for the success of their graduates is relatively new, and only a small group of experts fully understand its nationwide implications. Kimberly Hanauer, the founder of UnlockED, an education consulting firm, is one of these experts.
According to Hanauer, when provided with data regarding college enrollment and graduation rates, school leaders are empowered to take action. They can collaborate with local colleges to improve graduation rates for struggling students or learn from colleges with successful graduation rates to enhance their own practices.
Hanauer gained her expertise as the former director of college prep for the District of Columbia Public Schools, one of the few pioneering districts in the country to utilize data-driven college guidance alongside Chattanooga.
Chattanooga’s Public Education Foundation began utilizing education data years ago primarily as a diagnostic tool. Their goal was to determine which educational interventions were effective and which were not.
However, both the foundation and school officials quickly realized that the true value of the data lay in a different realm. "The data do not simply measure impact," explained Dan Challener, the foundation’s president. "They also expose students and parents to the various opportunities available to them."
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