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Success-Focused College Counseling

This step-by-step guide will help you assist students in choosing a postsecondary institution based on graduation rates and outcomes.

Over the last few decades, the world of higher education has grown to include thousands of institutions and programs. As more students are choosing colleges and universities, the number of options has grown exponentially.

However, this has made choosing a post-secondary institution very complex. Students, families, and college counselors have to filter through multiple data points to find the right school for an individual student’s abilities, needs, and preferences.

This step-by-step implementation guide details how college counselors and school leaders can develop a college choice support system that provides students with better data, shifts the focus of college conversations from colleges to students, and focuses on long-term student success. We outline five steps to implement a simple, low-resource solution that can be customized to your school’s needs and includes the required investment and time needed to complete each stage.

Step 1: Find out where your students are going to college

The vast majority of your students attend a limited number of schools, usually local and regional public and private institutions.

Districts need a good understanding of where their students are already going before focusing resources on better supporting their choices. Create a list of the institutions your graduates most frequently attend and keep the list manageable and updated to understand what pool of post-secondary institutions most of your students are picking from.

Use National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data if your district already partners with the NSC, and/or collect survey data from counselors, accepted seniors, and alumni to create a comprehensive list.

Step 2: Gather data on each school’s graduation rates

Once districts compile the list of most attended schools, they can then begin obtaining graduation rate information for each school. Populate the college list with each institution’s average graduation rates, as well as graduation rates by race/ethnicity, gender, and income. There are also optional tools you can use that can incorporate specific data regarding your own alumni outcomes in these schools.

Step 3: Divide institutions into lists based on “student success”

Pick a cutoff graduation rate based on your own student population and divide universities into a “high-success” and a “low-success” list based on their graduation rates. Good benchmarks to use are the national average 3-year completion rate at 2-year institutions (29%) and 6-year completion rate at 4-year institutions (59%). However, you may want to pick a higher or lower cutoff, depending on your own student population.

This will help you see where students are more likely to succeed. Don’t forget to pay special attention to graduation rates for low-income and minority students, which can differ from the average graduation rate at each school and can vary significantly between schools.

Step 4: Develop institutional “nudging” mechanisms

It is critical to adopt tactics that guide interactions with different colleges and universities. This sends a message to both students and counselors that the district is committed to supporting students in making smarter college choices.

Encourage students to consider high-success schools and discourage students from the low-success schools by directing funds, attention, time, and resources to provide more exposure to the high-success institutions. This includes funding/de-funding field trips, visits, promoting interactions, seeking partnerships, etc.

Step 5: Change the college choice conversation

Students may be asking their counselor, “What college is most likely to accept me?” Instead, shift the conversation to a student-centered focus: “Which school am I most likely to graduate from?” Use the information from the school list to help students and families make a fully informed decision about what post-secondary institutions will set them up for success.

While districts should have a consistent, unified message, reinforced through both conversations and actions, the lists should not be used as a controlling mechanism, but as a guide to more informed conversations.