From Tails to Heads: Momentum Metrics for Postsecondary Applications

Tuesday, August 25, 2020
Lauren Norton
Senior Associate

Last week, ESG released a new report—From Tails to Heads: Building Momentum for Postsecondary Success—which offers a framework for a new set of postsecondary transition metrics for states and communities to prioritize in order to help more students successfully move to and through higher education. Collectively, the “Momentum Metrics” identified in the report represent eight of the most predictive indicators of postsecondary preparation, retention, and success. 

Today, we’re taking a closer look at key metrics related to the process of applying to and selecting a postsecondary institution or program.

College Application: According to research from the College Board, increasing the number of applications from one to two can increase a student’s probability of enrolling at a postsecondary institution by 40 percent, and 89 percent of students submitting at least two applications are accepted by at least one four-year institution. While submitting two applications is a foundational goal, we encourage schools and districts to consider setting more ambitious targets. One Goal, a program that partners with districts in six cities across the country to improve high school graduation, encourages students to apply to at least seven best-fit colleges. As part of their College Match Framework, the KIPP charter network tracks the percentage of students who apply to at least six institutions.

At the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), high school principals are assessed for the percentage of college-bound seniors who have submitted at least one college application. To support school leaders in tracking their students’ progress toward this goal, the district has created a dashboard that includes both aggregate and student-level data for key college and career readiness measures, including college application and FAFSA completion. School leaders, counselors, career and technical education teams, and college and career coordinators all have access to the dashboard, enabling them to target support to individual students. In recent years, DCPS has also integrated the concept of “smart college choice,” which identifies higher education institutions that meet scaled benchmarks for graduation rates based on a student’s GPA and SAT score. The aforementioned dashboard tracks students who have both applied to and been accepted to a “smart college choice.”

FAFSA Completion: Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) significantly increases the odds that a student will enroll in a postsecondary institution directly after high school, with 90 percent of students who complete the FAFSA seamlessly enrolling, compared to just 55 percent of non-completers. Students who complete the FAFSA are also more likely to persist in their college coursework and obtain a degree. Despite this, over a third of high school seniors fail to complete the form each year, leaving an estimated $3.4 billion in aid on the table. And the students who stand to benefit from financial aid the most, including first-generation and low-income students, are the least likely to complete the form.

To increase FAFSA completion, one of the highest-leverage strategies is to provide high school principals and counselors with access to student-level data that they can use to target support. According to data from the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), approximately 94,000 fewer students completed the FAFSA by the end of July compared to the same time last year. Nationally, this equates to a 4.1 percentage point decrease. With many families facing financial hardship due to the pandemic, it is more important than ever to ensure students complete the FAFSA.

Louisiana has consistently been one of the leading states for FAFSA completion rates for the past several years. In addition to requiring students to complete the FAFSA to graduate from high school, the state maintains a statewide data system that includes student-level FAFSA completion data. The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance (LOSFA), which manages the data, shares reports to schools on a weekly basis. Louisiana also includes FAFSA submission data on its School Finder information platform to provide parents and community members with meaningful data on students’ postsecondary preparation.

For additional strategies on how to support FAFSA completion, see our report released earlier this year, Fast Track FAFSA Completion, the accompanying case studies, and our blog on strategies for prioritizing FAFSA completion during the pandemic.

College Match: Where a student attends college matters. Research shows that students from low-income families are more likely to attend less selective universities than their academic credentials would otherwise allow, known as “undermatching.” Students who are undermatched are significantly less likely to complete their postsecondary degree given that these institutions often offer less financial aid and support services. As such, many districts and charter networks have started to set goals around the percentage of students admitted to at least one “match” school and have aligned their advising supports to guide students toward the schools where they are likely to be the most successful as early as 9th grade. With many students indicating that, in light of the pandemic, they are considering attending a community college, an institution that is more affordable or closer to home, or deferring their college plans altogether, it is essential that students are guided to the institutions where they are most likely to be successful.

The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (“The Partnership”) has harnessed data to create resources for improving postsecondary match and fit for counselors in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The Partnership was formed as a collaboration between LAUSD, the city of Los Angeles, and other public and private partners, and they manage 18 of the “most historically underserved schools” in the city. The Partnership used data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) to set criteria for the “best fit” schools that had a track record of successfully supporting LAUSD students. For institutions with an average admitted student GPA above a 3.5, match institutions must have at least a 75 percent or higher minority graduation rate. For institutions with an average admitted student GPA below a 3.5, match institutions must have at least a 55 percent of higher minority graduation rate. The Partnership sends prioritized lists of these best fit schools to students and families to help guide their postsecondary decisions.