Measuring College-Going Outcomes

The grant that I work on currently, GEAR UP, uses college enrollment as its primary outcome. Or rather it used to. In recent grant cycles, the shift in absolute priorities has​ indicated that primary outcomes have been moving toward persistence i.e. staying in college for eventual graduation. In measuring college-going outcomes, it can vary with increasing expectations:

  1. Enrolling in any postsecondary institution
  2. Enrolling in a 2-year college
  3. Enrolling in a 4-year college
  4. Enrolling in college without need for remediation
  5. Persisting in college for the second year on track to graduation
  6. Graduating from college in six years

GEAR UP, due to its nature of the grant cycle, can only measure the first five outcomes and predict with varying accuracy the sixth one. But it is increasingly obvious that the first two outcomes are met easily or even the third outcome but the other two are exponentially difficult.

Recent trends have indicated that one in five students that eventually show up, notwithstanding summer melt, for college enrollment drop out. High schools have to be re-tooled to measure success not only in graduating students but in also ensuring they are college-ready. The chasm between a high school graduate and a college-ready high school graduate is increasingly widening especially with increased competition for postsecondary coupled with lowered standards for high school graduation. This simply leads to the inevitable outcome of students landing up in colleges requiring to be remediated before they can take any college-level courses. Students often spend over two years at a huge personal cost in terms of time and money getting ready just for their first college-level course. Unsurprisingly, many lose interest or more accurately lack financial means to persist and drop out except this time with debt. Very few employers want to hire someone with “some college” experience and even less so if they haven’t taken any college-level courses.

Some want to address this issue by insisting that college is not for everyone but I think this smacks of the ​soft bigotry of low expectations. The University of Texas at Austin’s admission office recently noted that probability of a student persisting into the second year of college depended not on their high school success or any factors prior to them entering college but in fact on their performance and experience in their first year of college. Imagine that! Almost everyone enters college with a clean slate equipped for a fresh start. Obviously,​ social capital advantages exist​ but for universities like UT Austin, it is also in their best interests to prevent students that they admitted from dropping out.

The real challenge, I believe, for grants like GEAR UP is to shift focus from simply ensuring college enrollment to working toward college readiness. That includes ensuring students enroll without a ​need for remediation or at least less remediation. It also means that Year 7 implementation gains more importance but at the same time that doesn’t mean we have to wait until Year 7 to put things in place.

Nor are academic problems necessarily the major reason students quit. More than 40 percent who leave have grade-point averages of at least 3.0, or a solid B, according to the education consulting company Civitas Learning. A separate report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 500,000 top-scoring high school graduates spanning all races and income levels never earn degrees, most of them because they start but then give up on college.

“It would be great to do an exit interview,” Zamani-Gallaher said. “But we don’t have the benefit of knowing in advance that a student is leaving. We have this lag time in realizing they’re not here.”

Or, as one undergraduate who quit put it, “Leaving was weird. Nobody noticed [Source].”

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Social-emotional learning is gaining ground as a pivotal factor that we need to focus on from middle school. Factors like grit, leadership, confidence-building, curiosity and ingenuity, composure and resilience, teamwork and cooperation, etc. cannot be just turned on like a faucet in Year 7 but have​ to be gradually worked on and built throughout the ​middle and high school. We must focus on academics too and emphasize the importance of Algebra and the sciences and not deem them as beyond the capabilities of the underserved students.

The next few years are going to be pivotal in understanding the importance of college readiness but for an economy in flux, sooner the people understand that the college experience is not about learning of content but more about learning how to learn, the better it will be for their progeny.

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