California lacks timely data on which high schoolers go to college. This might fix that

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Pop quiz: How many California high school students went to college this year or last?

Answer: We don’t really know. The most recent public information is three years old.

In fact, California trails much of the nation in showing how many of its students move from earlier grades to high school and then to college. It’s just one of nine states without a data system that links at least some of its education and workforce agencies, according to a 2019 review by a policy group. While each California agency, such as the K-12 and higher education systems, has a lot of information about its students, the public knows little about how those students transition from one system to another. 

The state’s paltry public data on high schoolers going to college is the result of one-time funds from 2017-18, not an integrated data system with regular updates. 

Because of fragmented data, many educators and the public lack basic, easy-to-access information about how many high school students go to college, which colleges they attend, and how they perform.

A new public statewide data system that’s part of the state’s gargantuan quarter-trillion dollar budget deal seeks to change that, though its debut may be a year away.

With the data system, “there’s a real opportunity to go from last to first” for California, said Paige Kowalski, a senior executive at Data Quality Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. 

How educators have dealt with the dearth of data so far

Pre-pandemic graduation ceremonies in 2019 at Glendale Community College students. (Credit: Julie Leopo for EdSource)

Currently filling the void of a cohesive, comprehensive statewide system is a constellation of regional efforts that make use of the data that’s available through different state and national agencies. Only a handful of places, including Riverside and San Diego counties, currently have countywide data, often relying on paid services like the National Student Clearinghouse. Other high schools can track some college-going information through a state-funded program, but little of that information is publicly available.

For instance, finding out which high school seniors in an area went to college and where they went can require piecing together information from colleges, local student information systems and Clearinghouse reports — which takes up a lot of staff time for schools, districts and counties.

College and career experts say they can’t do their jobs without access to timely data linking K-12 to higher ed. 

For many, what’s available is data for a fee from the National Student Clearinghouse, a Virginia-based nonprofit which tracks student transitions from high school to college.

“Getting relevant data that is timely has always been very difficult with education, and the National Student Clearinghouse data is the closest we can get to timely feedback,” said Christine Chopra, executive director of the Santa Cruz County College & Career Collaborative. 

Santa Cruz County pays for Clearinghouse data for each of its high school districts, which costs $425 per high school, a discounted rate for state agencies, according to the Clearinghouse. 

In order to get its countywide data, the San Diego County Office of Education signed individual agreements with its 43 districts that had high schools, as well as with individual charter schools. It took a year to get all the agreements signed because they often have to be approved by school boards, said Shannon Coulter, director of research and evaluation at San Diego County Office of Education. 

The county also spends $40,000 a year to cover the cost of a Clearinghouse subscription for all 175 of its high schools. Coulter said the price is about half of what it would be if high schools paid for it themselves. “There’s an economy of scale,” he said. Coulter said before the county started paying for Clearinghouse data, less than half of the county’s high schools had access. 

Armed with more data, San Diego educators found that low-income students in one district who were UC- and CSU-eligible weren’t enrolling there. As a result, counselors were able to target support to encourage qualified students to apply to four-year universities. 

Some regions have created their own data collaboration. Researchers at Fresno State University used that local data to show that students taking an entry-level math class at local community colleges passed calculus at relatively similar rates as those who took the same courses at Fresno State, helping to dispel notions about the inferiority of community college curriculum. Fresno City College uses the same data system to identify which incoming students might need additional academic services. 

Students at Cal State Fullerton (Photo by Christina House/Los Angeles Times/ Polaris, via EdSource)

But that regional data has its own limitations. It’s not designed for public use, so it’s mostly information that researchers analyze or that colleges use for recruitment. And even if it were public, its scope is limited, because it omits the students who leave the area to attend college. 

The fix (maybe)

For about $19 million annually, California will develop a public data system that tracks students as they progress from early education programs to K-12 to college and finally to the workforce. 

The data system would provide answers for sought-after questions about student outcomes based on their demographics and other background information, including:

  • Which early education programs led to students having stronger math and English test scores? 
  • How many students from a high school go to college, which one, and did they remain enrolled and eventually graduate?
  • What are the likely incomes for various college degrees, majors and programs and the industries that employ those students?

A clearer equity lens for California high school students

The system is also being designed to examine the racial and economic barriers for students getting into college and earning good wages. It could become a key tool in dismantling stubborn racist narratives that blame individual students who attend under-resourced schools. 

“It’s understanding that education doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” said Kathy Booth, a project director for the research firm WestEd. She helped organize the official work group that produced recommendations to Gov. Gavin Newsom about the data system. “And I think that’s really important for the discussions that we’re having about structural inequities.”

The work group came up with over 200 data points for the system. Among its many firsts for California, Cradle to Career would link data on student academic success and school quality to whether students are in families that receive federal food subsidies and cash aid, information that isn’t easily presented now. A lot of the data points go back a decade or more and the system will continue to add information with each new year. 

Not everything that happens at school will be captured in the data system, Booth said. Colleges don’t collect consistent information about students who use writing centers or food pantries, for example. Nor is there a standard definition for calculating grade-point averages, so GPAs won’t be in the public system initially. Meanwhile, there are plans to let students and families opt out of having their info collected.

Much of the data will also have a lag of about a year initially, Booth said, because the bill language requires that the various agencies upload their information once a year. But public pressure for faster or more frequent uploads could change that, she added.

Data alone won’t dispel racist myths, but it “can be really important for truth-telling,” said Christopher Nellum, interim executive director of Education Trust-West, a research and advocacy nonprofit in California. Getting the public to use the data is key, said Nellum, who helped to advise the work group on the data system and advocated for a community engagement strategy.

For its part, Education Trust-West will provide data tutorials for parents and advocates once the Cradle to Career data system goes live, Nellum said. That way the public can use the information at school board meetings or other influential venues to highlight problems in their communities. 

Early adopters

Part of the nearly $19 million for the Cradle to Career system is $3.8 million for the statewide expansion of an existing software tool that almost 100 school districts already use. It’s called the California Colleges Guidance Initiative and gives real-time data about whether students are on track to apply for college or financial aid. It also allows educators to identify what works and what doesn’t. 

When several colleges extended application deadlines for the fall 2021 admission cycle, Catalina Cifuentes, director of college and career counseling for Riverside County, was able to use the tool to identify students who had started but not completed applications.

The guidance tool “isn’t autopsy data,” said Cifuentes, who also advised the Cradle to Career work group. “It’s live, actionable data.” 

In July, a Riverside school district also used the system to identify rising seniors who are close to completing all of the courses required for UC and CSU admission to encourage them to take summer school and complete those courses. 

Next steps

Lawmakers are expected to approve the bill that includes the data system — and the public board that’ll oversee it — next week. Newsom has also advocated for Cradle to Career. The plan is for the data system to have 12 employees and eventually 16.

When the data tools will be live in some capacity is hard to say, Booth said, but she’s hopeful the public will have a first glimpse by early 2022. The process may be slowed because of new legislative language that requires the data system to go through a specific state planning process.

Sometime in the next few months the public will see college-going data for students who finished high school in 2018 and 2019. 

Cradle to Career presents a lot of promise, said Cifuentes, because it’ll also answer bigger-picture questions, such as whether the hefty amount the state spends on various education programs pays off. Nearly $94 billion alone is flowing to schools and community colleges in this year’s budget deal. The data system “will truly measure the return on investment California has made for our students, families and communities,” she said. 

This story was supported by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

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