College Signing Days Reflect a Future Worth Celebrating

High school graduates throw their caps into the air at the closure of commencement on June 14, 2013.

During the first week of May, students at hundreds of high schools will gather to celebrate their respective commitments to higher education at College Signing Day. As part of the Better Make Room campaign, the day serves as a reminder that college acceptance is possible for all students; provides an inspiration for younger students to get on the college-ready track; and highlights the daily efforts of students, teachers, and school counselors to prepare graduates for their futures. While high school graduation and college acceptance are important milestones worth celebrating, educators and policymakers must remember that neither is a finish line; more must be done to provide students with the best chance at leading a fulfilling, middle-class life. In fact, wide differences in economic outcomes persist between those who enroll in college and those who complete college.

Closing schools’ college information gaps

Such differences in students’ economic outcomes make the availability of data and research linking K-12 education systems with information on college enrollment, persistence, and completion critical. A large share of undergraduates at four-year institutions—40 percent—do not complete their degree in six years, and less than one-fifth of students at community colleges that offer only two-year degrees complete their degrees within three years. The rates are even lower for students from low-income backgrounds. College attainment rates for young adults increased from slightly more than 40 percent to nearly 48 percent between 2007 and 2017, but significant gaps between white and minority students put the United States at only 10th in the world in the share of young adults who have finished college.

Some states and districts are beginning to move in the right direction by expanding their tracking and reporting of data on postsecondary enrollment and completion and linking it back to K-12 data systems. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, all states must track high school graduation and include postsecondary enrollment data when available on state report cards; so far, though, only 22 states have moved to publicly report postsecondary enrollment data. Even fewer—Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington, and Vermont—have recently included information on postsecondary completion.

Notably, the most difficult problem is how K-12 school systems can learn from this data, in order to prepare more students for postsecondary success. Current research indicates a high college dropout rate for low-income students cannot be fully explained by lower educational achievement in high school. About half of low-income students are undermatched—meaning they decide to attend colleges for which they are overqualified instead of making informed choices on schools that will best meet their needs. Yet, many K-12 districts and schools still do not have enough information to track why students are not finishing their college degree and how schools can better prepare their students to succeed.

How KIPP is confronting the college completion challenge

As a number of high-performing charter management organizations (CMOs) saw cohorts of high school graduates enter college, they discovered that many were not succeeding. One example is the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of high-performing charter schools, which decided to re-examine its college preparation program after the 2011 College Completion Report revealed that only 31 percent of KIPP’s alumni graduate from four-year colleges within six years. KIPP had already started reporting on college completion in 2008, but the network’s college completion rates did not meet its goals—although they significantly exceeded averages for low-income students. KIPP then worked to help students build their own skills and agency to be successful in college and also re-examined the college and career preparation efforts across the network’s 31 regions.

One of KIPP’s early changes was renaming its college counseling efforts from KIPP to College, to the current KIPP Through College and Career (KTC). This effort starts before high school and includes a small counselor-to-student ratio of 1-to-50 to ensure students have access to the resources they need. As part of the program, counselors inform students about the basics of college—such as public versus private, cost, and cultural considerations—to make sure students think critically about their choices and interests.

In students’ junior year of high school, counselors look at specific student needs and interests—for example, the academic rigor of their course load and their SAT/ACT score, in addition to GPA—to compile a list of schools that are a good academic fit, as well as match students’ interests. Counselors also prioritize schools that have high minority graduation rates rather than just the highest-ranking colleges and universities—and KIPP works closely with 80 colleges and universities that have made a commitment to helping first-generation students get into and through college.

During senior year, all students take a senior seminar to talk through their college questions and application components, such as writing college essays. According to a phone interview with Tevera Stith, the director of KTC in Washington, D.C., the senior seminar “provides the time [for counselors] to connect with students in a way that larger urban and suburban schools often cannot.” In Stith’s 2017 class, 90 percent of students finished their applications by November 30, allowing them to spend the rest of the year focusing on their grades and financial aid.

KTC has successfully placed and supported 11,000 alumni in colleges and universities. This year, KIPP DC has students at more than 120 colleges, including Ivy League universities, competitive liberal arts colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and community colleges, according to Stith. While KIPP encourages students to attend one of its partner schools if it is a good fit, “at the end of the day, the choice is up to the student,” Stith says.

What makes KIPP’s counseling program particularly powerful is that its support does not stop when students graduate high school. According to Stith, “the nature of the adolescent mind is when you get to college, sometimes you think, ‘I can do this all on my own.’” But outreach from counselors each semester is critical in helping students maintain their financial aid, get access to the necessary courses, and stay on track to graduation.

KTC’s alumni database matches new KIPP alumni with juniors and seniors who can answer questions, provide academic advisement, and help them navigate new social interactions. The mentorship program is particularly valuable for students who may be attending predominantly white schools that look and feel different than KIPP schools, which tend to be more diverse, because “there’s something special about knowing there’s someone who’s gone through a similar journey as you on campus,” Stith explains.

Comprehensive counselor support, peer-to-peer mentorship programs, and rigorous college completion data help explain why so many KIPP alumni navigate college successfully. They enroll in college and graduate from four-year colleges at rates 14 percent and 2 percent higher than the national average, respectively—even though the share of KIPP students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is 37 percent higher than the national average. KIPP alumni now graduate from four-year colleges at four times the national average rate for low-income students—an increased from three times the rate of the national average in 2011.

Out of 3,000 surveyed KIPP alumni enrolled at a variety of colleges and universities, the majority of students reported feeling comfortable at their college, having good mental health, and feeling confident about their intellectual growth in college. KIPP’s commitment to data is not just effective at tracking outcomes, but also provides strong feedback on how schools, teachers, and counselors can better support students going forward.

Improving college preparation and support

Despite KIPP’s efforts, the majority of public schools have not invested—or in many cases do not have the resourcesto offer this kind of assistance to every high school student as they prepare for college. According to a National Association for College Admission Counseling survey, public school counselors on average can devote only 20 percent of their time to college counseling.

With an average national school counselor-to-student ratio of nearly 1-to-500, school counselors struggle to support every student who seeks college and career advising assistance. What’s more, these ratios are even higher in districts with more low-income, first-generation students who require additional assistance. In Chicago’s public schools, for example, this differential in college counseling and preparation led to charter school students being more likely to report that they had assistance in college planning; were more likely to enroll in four-year colleges and universities; and were more likely to complete at least four semesters of college than noncharter school students.  

Expanding KIPP’s efforts

In order to move the needle on student attainment metrics that really matter—that is, college persistence and graduation—policymakers and K-12 school systems need to do more to invest in comprehensive college preparation efforts through several steps. First and foremost, schools should ensure that all students have access to rigorous coursework that is aligned with college admissions, as well as college counselors to help them navigate the admissions process. Districts can reduce counselor-to-student ratios or hire separate counseling personnel to help manage college and career readiness. Counselors can also utilize a number of online tools to help them manage the application process and track data more efficiently, as KIPP has demonstrated. Finally, all states should make an investment to link K-12 and higher education data systems to get a better understanding of the challenges students face after College Signing Day.

Sarah Shapiro is a research assistant for K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress. Neil Campbell is the director of innovation for K-12 Education at the Center.