Here at the To&Through Project, we work to make data accessible with an aim to inspire action. As a result, we’ve often had the honor of being privy to our colleagues’ personal reflections on the data we share, and their varying perspectives shape the way we think about this work.
Below, we share Brian Harris’ reflections on one of our Data Insights — which summarize years of research from the UChicago Consortium and To&Through Project — and his pushes for thinking about how students’ voices can inform our collective work to improve the system.
As college access professionals in high schools, our primary focus tends to specifically be to improve college enrollment since that is the postsecondary attainment indicator we have the most direct influence over. But the degree/credential is what gives you the agency to navigate society and self-determine, so what’s the point of increasing enrollment but not the rate of students actually completing college? While we can (and should!) certainly give ourselves credit for increasing the number of students enrolling in college, we have to simultaneously hold ourselves accountable for the fact that the college completion rate has remained stagnant, particularly when one of the products of that increased enrollment is more students returning home from college with debt and no degree. If that’s the ultimate product of our work, we’re not getting closer to actually improving life outcomes for our communities at large.
Ensuring we are preparing students to not only enroll but also graduate from college requires us to take a hard look at the data we are using to guide our practices. Many of the metrics that we use to “predict” college success aren’t proving to be correlative in all schools and communities. Black neighborhood schools in particular have by-and-large increased their Freshman OnTrack rates, high school graduation rates, average GPA, and percentage of students earning early college credentials—all while seeing a decrease in college persistence.
Without even diving into the value of the practice, we can acknowledge the fact that our tiered high school selection system has resulted in higher concentrations of needier students attending the same high schools, and that these high schools tend to struggle the most in translating college success indicators to actual college success. So the most important questions that come up for me when looking at this data insight are: What other variables exist in students’ lives and schooling experiences that inform whether or not they achieve their aspirations? And how can we incorporate these variables into developing a more comprehensive cadre of data metrics to better predict college success for all students?
—Brian Harris, Postsecondary Program Manager at Percy L. Julian High School