News: College Access & Success

School Districts Identify Buy-In, Data, Sustainability as Top Challenges to Improving Postsecondary

Wednesday, October 24, 2018  
Posted by: Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation
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There are many challenges for schools and school districts aiming to change the way they do business around postsecondary advising, and although those challenges vary widely, there are a few shared obstacles. This is the takeaway from convening with 20 grantees from the To & Through Advising Challenge, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NCAN is providing technical assistance to the grantees, and the convening took place in September at NCAN’s national conference in Pittsburgh.

One of the most common issues grantees identified was how to earn buy-in from all stakeholders (parents, students, teachers, school leaders, and especially counselors) and which stakeholders, exactly, needed to be at the table. Related to this were questions about shifting mindsets around schools' and districts' responsibility for students' postsecondary outcomes. The prevailing mindset in many schools seems to be that high school graduation marks the end of the obligation to the student. But that is changing, and will continue to change, in many places across the country. Extending K-12’s responsibility for what students do and where they go even after they leave a high school’s halls seems like it will be a sea change. For example, many school counselors receive little formal training or professional development in postsecondary advising despite often bearing the responsibility for guiding students through the college-going process.

Grantees were also very interested in how to build capacity and sustainability of the system such that they could lay the groundwork for enduring change beyond the scope of the grant’s activities. “Is our district structured appropriately for the work to be done seamlessly?” one grantee asked. “How do you maintain enthusiasm and long-term change?” asked another. When we are examining wholesale changes in schools’ postsecondary advising practices to shift and improve students’ postsecondary outcomes, the focus on building long-term sustainability in that shift is key.

These insights, and many others, were gathered during the gallery walk exercise, which offered an opportunity to conduct some rapid learning around the grantees’ aspirations, questions, and needs. We asked each grantee to take a large Post-it note and answer four questions on it:

  1. What were your key takeaways from the NCAN conference?
  2. What questions remain unanswered for you to accomplish the objectives of the grant?
  3. What resources do you need to accomplish the objectives of the grant?
  4. What are your next steps when you return home?

Grantees then walked around to see each other’s responses and marked items they were also interested in or with which they agreed by putting smaller Post-it notes beside them. (As an aside, this exercise is a useful, fun, and interactive way to get around more traditional one-by-one reporting out in a gathering like this.) NCAN then recorded each grantee’s responses and tabulated the number of “upvotes” each received. This allowed us to put a quantitative dimension to this qualitative data; essentially, we can produce a heat map of grantees’ interests and needs. This information will drive coaches’ work with the grantees and inform the technical assistance NCAN provides.

Two major themes emerged around needed resources, professional development, and training: building data capacity and providing additional postsecondary advising professional development to school counselors. “Data literacy and training,” “data dashboards to inform strategy,” “data visualization techniques” all garnered support from grantees, but tops in this category was something actually related to postsecondary advising: training for school counselors to follow-up on financial aid and help students through the FAFSA verification process. (NCAN estimates that 22 percent of low-income students selected for verification after completing the FAFSA experience verification melt and do not complete the verification process, which means, among other things, that they fail to receive a Pell Grant.) More broadly, grantees identified a need for best practices for school counselors about how to incorporate fit and match into their advising and how to help students prepare for and navigate the application and matriculation process.

The identification of data-related needs correlated with many grantees’ top takeaways from the NCAN conference. “Data is key (system + systemic),” “Importance of data collection and analysis,” “Access to actionable data and systemic approach,” “Data, data, data -> plan and action,” and “Data is crucial” wrote five grantees.

These were just a few of the rich insights collected during the conference convening, which also featured presentations related to each of the four objectives of the To & Through Advising Challenge:

  • Incorporate fit and match into postsecondary advising for students.
  • Increase access to financial aid by focusing on FAFSA completion and mitigating the effects of verification.
  • Reduce summer melt by providing support to students that ensures they show up on campus in the fall.
  • Accomplish each of these through a thoughtful and systemic use of data.

Having identified their questions and needs, NCAN and the more than 20 data and postsecondary coaches working with these grantees will continue to help these districts and organizations develop implementation plans that they will use during the 2019-20 academic year. The takeaway from NCAN’s conference that received the most support during the gallery walk was “We have a lot to do! There are strategies to do it. We need a little help.” NCAN is here to provide that help and to continue learning about how to help these school districts and others like them across the country.