By Bill DeBaun, National College Attainment Network

There are few more poignant moments than when students cross the stage and receive their high school diplomas. At that moment, families, district and school administrators, teachers, and everyone else who has helped the student get to this point see so much of their time and effort realized.

Borrowing a page from every commencement speech ever written, that K-12 culmination is also a new beginning and, for many, a new pathway toward college and/or career.

As students take their first steps toward that new pathway, how many district and school personnel really know where their students are going? Unfortunately, the answer too often is “not many”.

Sure, most schools monitor acceptances and conduct senior exit surveys to better understand students’ post-high school plans, but that knowledge is too infrequently paired with practice that ensures students fulfill their plans.

A few months ago, NCAN wrote about summer melt, a phenomenon that affects 10-40% of high school students intending to matriculate to a postsecondary institution. We offered suggestions like making sure to measure summer melt, creating college transition checklists, building a summer melt program, and using our summer melt toolkit to be proactive.

NCAN also recently outlined how federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act can spur partnerships between the K-12 sector and community-based organizations. The list of allowable uses of recovery and relief funds includes Title 1 spending, which provides federal aid to schools with high percentages of low-income students, potentially greenlighting a large swatch of college and career readiness activities.

One key practice left unconsidered was how to forge stronger connections between K-12 districts and schools and the postsecondary institutions to which their students matriculate. When we talk about the “silos” between the K-12 and higher education sectors, what that looks like in practice is that districts and institutions often don’t have consistent or impactful contact that could benefit students. While existing connections might include scheduling tours for students to visit a campus, K-12 and higher ed need to invest in outreach that will build deeper, more sustained relationships.

Our sense from talking with districts and schools across the country is that substantial proportions of their students matriculate to a handful of institutions, with a long tail of additional institutions getting one or just a few students each year. Our other sense, unfortunately, is that few districts and schools have close professional contact with the institutions welcoming most of their graduates. That lack of contact makes it so there is no formal hand-off of students, and they can fall through the cracks, or “melt” as described above.

This summer is coming after a decidedly difficult year, and everyone involved in education wants, and deserves, a break. But given that FAFSA completions are down, college applications are down for first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds, and students are changing their college plans, there is no rest for the weary, unfortunately. The high school class of 2020 saw a nearly 7% decline in fall enrollment, and the leading indicators for the class of 2021 are not optimistic.

Now is the time for school district administrators to look at their senior exit survey data or, even better, their previous National Student Clearinghouse StudentTracker data to see which combination of institutions comprises the largest proportion of students’ destinations. (By the way, summer is the best time to update your StudentTracker Graduates file so that it is ready to go when fall enrollment data become available).

Next, deepen outreach to those institutions, through the admissions and financial aid offices or student support services. See how district and college or university staff can work together to ease students’ transitions. Maybe that is as simple as the university co-creating or developing a college transition checklist (or reviewing an existing one for accuracy and making any needed additions). But maybe it’s a more intensive partnership that includes personalized outreach to students that can answer their matriculation questions.

Summer is the right time to do this because both sectors know this is a perilous time of year in a particularly perilous moment for students, and there is a concrete goal for both sides: making sure students achieve their postsecondary aspirations. Let’s strengthen the K-12/higher ed connections that can help students in the class of 2021 and beyond.


NCAN Guest Blog: A Quick Guide to Financial Aid Award Letters
NCAN Guest Blog: Stopping Summer Melt Starts in the Spring

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