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Solidify K12-Higher Ed Connections to Firm Up Students’ Next Steps

By: Bill DeBaun   |   June 2022

Learn from Bill DeBaun, Senior Director of Data and Strategic Initiatives at the National College Attainment Network as he shares how you can build and strengthen K-12 and higher education connections this summer.

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, do 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 those plans.
NCAN often writes about summer melt (and publishes resources about the same). Summer melt is a phenomenon that affects 10-40% of high school students intending to matriculate to a postsecondary institution. We offer 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.
One key practice left unconsidered is 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 education 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.
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 education.
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 many 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 education silo and forge the connections that can help students in the class of 2022 and beyond.

Bill DeBaun is the National College Attainment Network's Senior Director of Data and Strategic Initiatives. In that role he researches and writes about college access and success programming that demonstrates significant results for students’ college enrollment and graduation rates while additionally providing technical assistance to other initiatives. Mr. DeBaun leads NCAN’s Benchmarking Project, an on-going collaborative research effort with NCAN members that examines the enrollment and completion outcomes of students served by college access and success programs. The Benchmarking Project contains key demographic, service, and outcome data on more than 500,000 member-served students and provides insight into the college access and success field.