College Readiness Supports In LAUSD High Schools: A First Look

Executive Summary

Most U.S. high school students expect to attend college.i Yet many seniors who plan to attend a four-year college do not apply, and some who apply, and are accepted, do not enroll.ii The college expectations-enrollment gap is widest for low-income students, who often face more barriers than their socioeconomically advantaged peers in navigating the college application and enrollment process, and are less likely to complete important steps such as taking the SAT, submitting a college application, or applying for financial aid.iii Given the increasing importance of college completion for individuals’ economic and social well-beingiv and growing socioeconomic disparities in students’ college enrollment and completion,v public schools play a critical role in ensuring that students are well prepared to succeed in college and have the college knowledge necessary to bridge the college expectations-enrollment gap.

This report describes the prevalence of college readiness supports for high school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Our findings draw primarily on analyses of survey data reported by high school counselors who worked in LAUSD’s traditional and affiliated charter high schools in the 2015-16 school year. We supplement those data with information from interviews with district and school staff, survey data collected from external service providers, and selected student, teacher, and administrator data from LAUSD’s districtwide School Experience Survey (see the Appendix for details).

We begin by describing the evolution of district policies focused on helping students prepare academically for college. We then describe supports related to building students’ college knowledge, such as learn­ing about colleges, preparing for college entrance exams, completing college and financial aid applications, and registering for and enrolling in college. We conclude with a discussion of the challenges schools face in fostering college readiness, and implications for policy and practice.

Key Findings

Our analyses yield several important findings that are relevant to improving college readiness supports in LAUSD:

1. Nearly all LAUSD high schools provide students with information about the course requirements for high school graduation and college eligibility as well as support during the college application, financial aid, and college enrollment process.

2. Despite available supports, some students lack sufficient information and assistance. For example, about a quarter of students say they need more information about course requirements and do not feel they have an adult at their school to whom they can go for help with the college application process.

3. Because of large caseloads and competing demands on their time, many counselors feel they lack sufficient time to give all students the assistance they need. Moreover, counselors in about a third of schools say their schools need additional college-related supports and resources, such as workshops, college tours, and technology.

4. Some schools have integrated college information and tasks into the school day to ensure that all students, even those who might be reluctant or unable to seek out help, receive college-going support.

5. Most LAUSD schools also rely on external service providers to assist students with the college application process. While external service providers offer valuable support to schools, they typically reach only some students at each school and often require additional coordination, both among the providers and with the services provided by school staff.

Implications for Policy and Practice

Although LAUSD high schools offer college readiness supports, our findings suggest that existing supports are insufficient to provide students the assistance they need. To reach more students, and to provide the individualized counseling that research suggests is helpful for college access,vi our findings point to several strategies that LAUSD may want to consider. We list these strategies as a holistic set of recommendations emerging from our research, and do not order them in terms of importance because research in this area is too incomplete to prioritize particular strategies over others. We suggest that LAUSD consider the following recommendations:

1. Set consistent, districtwide expectations for the college access-related resources available to students, the level of individualized support families can expect, and the college-related topics that will be covered at each grade level.vii

2. Encourage schools to consider how staff might work together as a team to ensure that all students complete key college application and enrollment tasks. Perhaps with an assistant principal or lead or college counselor coordinating this team effort, staff could, for example, assist counselors with registering students for the SAT and ensuring eligible students receive fee waivers, following up on recommendation letters, supporting families’ FAFSA completion and verification, or reminding students of college enrollment tasks over the summer following senior year. A team planning process might also help identify tasks that administrators or other staff might be able to take on, to free up counselors’ time during particularly critical periods during the college application process (such as the fall of students’ senior year). Distributing staff responsibilities for college readiness more broadly may also help nurture the development of a college-going culture in schools, which research suggests is important for enhancing students’ college enrollment.viii

3. Provide additional college-counseling related professional development to school staff responsible for college counseling tasks, particularly in areas of need identified by counselors, including college eligibility and college application requirements, use of online college planning tools and resources to track student progress, and financial aid applications and awards.

4. Deliberately implement a select set of strategies that are already used by some schools, and that seem promising, and rigorously evaluate their influence on important outcomes such as college application, enrollment, persistence, and completion. These strategies might include the following practices:

a. Adopting a common checklist throughout the high school years, or using online tracking and college resource tools, to support counselors and other school staff, parents, and students themselves in tracking students’ progress toward important college milestones (e.g., all students take the SAT/ACT, complete the FAFSA by the Cal Grant deadline, apply to a certain number of colleges, etc.)ix and

b. Using time during the instructional day to focus on a sequenced curriculum related to the college application and financial aid process throughout the high school (and possibly middle school) years. By building college-related tasks into class assignments or class time (e.g., working on essays or other college application writing assignments in English class), schools may more systematically reach students who might not otherwise seek out assistance.

5. In addition, to help school staff ensure that students receive quality support, reduce duplication of services, and mitigate students falling through the cracks, the district could maximize the effectiveness of existing partnerships with external service providers by:

a. Recognizing that school counselors and other school staff who connect schools and students to external providers play a critical liaison and relationship-management role, for which staff may need information and resources;

b. Asking external service providers to contribute to a common system for keeping track of which students have received which college-related services, and with what regularity and intensity, so that the district or individual schools can determine which students are not receiving sufficient help;

c. Working with external service providers to understand which types of information about students’ needs and academic preparation would help providers serve their students well, and providing this information, as appropriate; and

d. Evaluating the effectiveness of the college-related services students receive from external providers.

Optimizing the college readiness resources available throughout the system and matching them to students’ individual needs requires coordination and time. School staff, particularly counselors, are at the center of this challenge. And yet counselors vary in their training and experiences in college counseling. Counselors will continue to need additional support to bring the promise of widespread college access to fruition, whether from the district and its centralized efforts to ramp up counseling services, from external service providers and the programs and supports they offer, or from additional school staff incorporating college readiness responsibilities into their existing roles and activities.

Our findings suggest that the system of college readiness supports and resources available to students in Los Angeles is broad, in the sense that school and district staff and a diverse array of providers support students at key points during high school. Yet, this collective system also appears to be somewhat thin, in terms of the proportion of students served and the intensity of support they receive. Improving students’ access to college readiness supports and completion of college access milestones will require a consistent commitment in Los Angeles—among leaders on the school board and in the central office, school staff and students, external providers, community and civic organizations, and philanthropists and funding agencies. LAUSD’s collaboration on identifying strategies for data collection for this report—for example, by adding counselor survey questions to the School Experience Survey—and the College Futures Foundation’s support of this type of research, were essential for taking this first step in gathering information to inform decision-making. In upcoming work, our ongoing researcher-practitioner collaboration will explore college counseling supports in LAUSD in more depth, after talking with counselors and observing professional development meetings focused on counseling; examine differences among schools in their college access supports; and describe recently-collected survey data on whether and where LAUSD twelfth graders applied to college. We are hopeful that Los Angeles can sustain this commitment to using research to inform our understanding of students’ educational experiences at key transition points on the path to their postsecondary futures, and how those experiences can be improved.

i Horn, Chen, & Chapman, 2003; Ross et al., 2012.
ii Castleman & Page, 2014a; Roderick et al., 2008.
iii Klasik, 2012; Plank & Jordan, 2001.
iv Hout, 2012; Ma, Pender, & Welch, 2016; Oreopoulos & Petronijevic, 2013.
v Bailey & Dynarski, 2011.
vi See, for example, Avery (2013), Bos, Berman, & Kane (2012), Carrell & Sacerdote (2017).
vii Although we recommend that the district adopt consistent districtwide expectations to ensure equitable access to essential college readiness resources throughout the district, schools vary in their needs, both within and across local districts. Therefore, we encourage the district to work with each Local District to identify barriers to meeting districtwide expectations as well as supports that may be available (e.g., external service providers that might be able supplement school services where necessary).
viii See Corwin & Tierney (2007), Engberg & Gilbert (2014), Hill (2008), McDonough (1997, 2008), Robinson & Roksa (2016), Roderick, Coca & Nagaoka (2011).
ix Studies suggest that checklists are effective in other fields, like medicine (for a recent review see Bergs et al., 2014). Checklists increase the likelihood that individuals will complete all of the steps in both simple and complex processes (Wetmore et al., 2016). For example, a counselor may only have a handful of students who need to take SAT II exams, so that step might be overlooked unless the counselor or students are prompted to check all exams that might be required for admission. Checklists may also help keep other school community members, such as teachers, administrators, parents, and students, apprised of important college tasks and deadlines (Haynes et al., 2011). Checklists’ effectiveness declines when checklists are only partially completed or used in a limited number of cases (van Daalen et al., 2017). Thus, inconsistent use of checklists, or completing checklists with only some students, may reduce the potentially positive effects of checklists. Moreover, checklists may be less beneficial or may have negative unintended consequences if they come to be viewed as yet another exercise required for compliance rather than an opportunity to ensure that students’ needs are met. For example, systems that require that all students apply to a set number of four-year colleges may skew efforts toward ensuring students submit a given number of applications, rather than having each student apply to the mix of colleges that is a good match for that student.