The High School Side of the Higher Education Act

With taxpayers shelling out more than $120 billion in federal funds each year on student financial aid, Americans deserve to know how well colleges and universities prepare students for the future. The need for greater accountability in higher education is understandably a key topic in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).

But the debate shouldn’t stop there. Congress is rightly focused on why student outcomes are important. But it has all but ignored how outcomes can be used to help students choose the right pathway after high school, prepare students for the complexities of college admissions and the rigors of college, and break down the silos of K-12 and postsecondary education so that students experience a seamless and supportive transition from high school to post-secondary education and beyond.

Our state and district education leaders at Chiefs for Change believe their responsibility doesn’t end when students graduate from high school. They are increasingly focused on how their graduates fare in college and beyond. In addition to new accountability measures that provide a clearer picture of how well colleges and universities educate their students, Congress should use the HEA reauthorization to invest in efforts that help students understand their best post-secondary options, strengthen college counseling, and increase students’ opportunities to take college courses in high school.

We need to find ways to make the best, clearest, and most useful information available to high school students and those helping them explore their post-secondary options.

This may seem obvious, but the federal government still has not figured out how to do it well. There have been some positive developments, such as incorporating information about non-degree granting programs, program-level loan data, and expanded graduation data in the College Scorecard, a resource produced by the U.S. Department of Education to help students compare colleges and universities. Although these advances are admirable, they fail to capture the information about what happens to students who enroll in and graduate from college that would be most helpful to high schoolers.

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To give students the information they need, lawmakers should allow the federal government to provide school districts with outcomes data for each of their graduates, while ensuring appropriate protections for privacy. Otherwise, district leaders, students, families, and counselors are essentially operating in the dark, making at best educated guesses about what works to help students succeed after high school.

But all the data in the world won’t help students if they can’t—or don’t know how to—use that information to make informed decisions about how best to pursue post-secondary education. A reauthorized HEA must enable high school students to receive the guidance and mentoring they need to make the smartest decisions about what to do after they graduate.

  • Our members are working to implement their own creative solutions in the absence of meaningful federal actions. The Midland (Tx.) Independent School District, for example, has instituted “What’s Your Plan?”—an initiative to support students in preparing for life after high school through supports for parents, students, and staff. Midland creates a tailored, four-year plan for each eighth-grade student with the goal of identifying a post-secondary pathway and providing the support necessary for students to stay on track.
  • Likewise, the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) is helping students make “Smart College Choices” by steering them toward colleges where the school district’s data on previous graduates suggests they’re likely to be successful. DCPS also has dedicated staff to provide college counseling and supports for students from low-income families and those who will be the first in their families to go to college.
  • Tennessee has built a robust data system to track outcomes and share information with districts to help them assess their academic programs, ensuring that students have educational options that keep pace with the changing demands of college and the workforce. The system combines information from school districts, higher education, and the National Student Clearinghouse, among other sources.

Each of these efforts is underfunded and at risk of being left behind by the accountability-focused juggernaut now driving the HEA debate. An institution could check all the accountability boxes—for graduation rates, debt and job placement—but still be the wrong choice for a particular student.

Congress should broaden the scope of education accountability under HEA to address the varied needs of students as they plan for and embark on the journey to post-secondary success.

Mike Magee is CEO of Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan network of state and district education leaders from across the United States.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.