Shining a Light on Student Outcomes

A poorly-lit high school-to-college pathway leaves students searching in the dark.

GUEST COLUMN | by Colin Mathews

CREDIT Merit meritpagesFor generations, the surest road to success for ambitious students led to college and a bachelor’s’ degree. College graduates reliably out-earned those with only a high school diploma, particularly over a period of declining wages for manufacturing and service jobs. High schools responded by preparing and sending record numbers of graduates to post-secondary education. Yet that once straight route has over time become rutted, redirected and even ruinous for many who travel it. That’s because a combination of a worldwide recession and changing employer demands have made the choices along the path to college a series of high-stakes decisions for those who travel it.

Graduation is an ending for most schools, with the transition from student to alumnus celebrated as a job well done. But what comes next is just as important for the students who have yet to graduate.

What is the best school? What is the best major? What internships, clubs, activities and more will make a difference? What’s more, these choices are deeply dependent upon each person’s individual goals and resources.

Complicating matters is the fact that high school students—and the teachers, administrators, and families who seek to guide them along their way—have very little insight into what awaits them down the paths they set out on. Graduation is an ending for most schools, with the transition from student to alumnus celebrated as a job well done. But what comes next is just as important for the students who have yet to graduate.

High schools have almost no visibility into what happens to the majority of their graduates. There are companies that offer statistical overviews of alumni outcomes, but none of the specific stories that connect the dots between their high school and every college for every graduate—the kind of stories that can create, inform and then nurture a college-going mindset for students who require role models as well as guidance.

Those specific stories make a big difference for students who lack a rich extracurricular support system that structures and enables higher ed expectations. Studies show that among high school students, peer preferences drive not only college choice, but the choice to go to college itself. Older peers, the kinds of “big kids” who can shape those expectations early in secondary school, are a prime vehicle for sending back scouting reports from the college path.

Yet tracking this information down is virtually impossible for most high schools to manage; high school students who head out for college are encouraged to almost superstitiously avoid their old stomping grounds. Even those secondary schools with both the staff and motivation to cultivate alumni relationships—like tuition-driven independent schools—struggle to maintain accurate, up-to-date databases of alumni accomplishments.

Colleges and universities are now starting to take the initiative to reach high schools with compelling evidence of those older peers’ experiences. The University of Findlay, for example, informs high schools which of their alumni are participating in internships or undergraduate research opportunities. Georgia State University connects high schools with stories of alumni and their diverse experiences at GSU, including study abroad, making it into an honor society, or being elected to student government. Those institutions are supported by programs like Better Make Room, with backers like Michelle Obama and LeBron James who are focused on communicating everyday success in college back to local communities and the students who seek the same paths.

Technology is allowing more colleges to connect the dots between their students and the high schools that prepared them for success. My company, which counts 250 colleges and universities on its roster, recently launched free accounts that every high school in the United States can use to view, share and promote the alumni outcomes that each college documents within the platform. Those updates range from enrollment to graduation, volunteer leadership to robotics competitions, and everything in between, casting a bright light on the individual paths each student at those institutions is traveling to their own outcomes.

When colleges make it clear what students are doing and achieving, and when they connect those stories to high schools so that future students can see the possible paths before them, decisions about what to do next are made based on the knowledge that someone like them has already done it, successfully. With technology that lets colleges and high schools collaborate to connect those dots, a new generation of students can see the paths before them and understand, through the stories of people they know, opportunities that await.

Colin Merit is founder and president of Merit, a technology company that helps hundreds of colleges connect personalized stories of student outcomes to high schools, communities, legislators, families, and employers. Write to: colin@meritpages.com

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