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Summer is the Time for K-12 and Higher Ed to Be Friends

May 28th, 2021

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 “no” or “not really.”

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 in this space, 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.

Incidentally, federal funding from the American Rescue Plan (and the other Covid relief legislation) can spur these kinds of partnerships with institutions and/or community-based organizations like college access programs. Probably the biggest takeaway is that any use allowable for Title I spending is allowable here for the recovery and relief funding, which in and of itself greenlights a large swath of activities, including those to prevent summer melt.

One key practice left unconsidered was how to forge stronger connections between K-12 districts and school 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 don’t have consistent, meaningful, or productive contact that could benefit students. Existing connections might include scheduling tours for students to visit a campus or getting more posters for the counselors’ suite, but K-12 and higher ed need outreach to build deeper, sustained, less transactional 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, conduct outreach to those institutions, through the admissions or 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. The possibilities are endless, but none of them will come to fruition without there being contact between K-12 and higher ed.

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 break down the K-12/higher ed silo and forge the connections that can help students in the class of 2021 and beyond.

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