The old adage “You don’t know what you don’t know” can be problematic when it comes to understanding how high schoolers are doing after graduation. For school leaders, a lack of data makes it hard to craft goals and metrics around high school graduates’ postsecondary paths.

Too few high school principals have access to data that helps them understand how their students fare after leaving high school, according to new findings from a forthcoming report from the RAND American School Leader Panel. Almost a third of school leaders report no access to data on whether their students enrolled in a two- or four-year college. And, a majority report they have no details on whether students required remediation after entering postsecondary education.

Perhaps more concerning, very few principals report access to the individual-level data needed to better understand and engage in continuous improvement to improve students’ readiness for and access to postsecondary education. Moreover, while the survey did not ask principals about information related to other, non-college pathways, such as military enlistment or apprenticeships, our grantee partners across the country report that these data are even less available to help inform educators, students, and their families.

Given this lack of information, it’s not surprising that almost half of principals report no formal goals around college enrollment for their school and even fewer have goals around avoiding remediation. In the midst of a national push to help more students not just enter college, but also succeed in college, very few high school leaders have goals that would support these critical efforts. 79% of school leaders also report they have no formal goals related to college “match” or “fit” – crucial to addressing undermatch and advising students towards postsecondary options that match their academic profiles and support their success.

View from the Field

Contrast what we see in the national survey with what our twenty Advising Challenge grantees, who are working to improve postsecondary advising for high school students, told us about the importance of data. Our partner, the National College Access Network (NCAN), found that in grantees’ first year reflections, data stands out as one of the most critical enablers – and barriers – to these systems’ continuous improvement efforts towards more equitable outcomes for students.

One big finding: Many grantees had not previously analyzed where their students were enrolling post-graduation. These data produced a number of “a-ha” moments:

  • “The administrators had many of the same realizations that the advising teams did, including the fact that a large number of our college-going students are choosing to attend a community college that has the lowest completion rate in the state by far. The recognition that we need to include match as a part of the advising conversations that we are having with students has been a powerful takeaway.”
  • “We had never looked at these data before, so it caused us to seriously think about where our students are going to college and how prepared they are for success once they arrive there.”
  • “This was a major a-ha moment for our district to start thinking about persistence, are they transitioning to four-year schools, are they graduating from the two-year school?”

For us, these findings point to two big takeaways for our work over the coming year:

First, data must be easier to access and use. Too many school leaders and educators lack access to the data they need. And even when they have access to data, educators need support to use those data in continuous improvement efforts.

Second, access to the right information catalyzes both educators and community leaders to act. This is the good news. We know that high schools meaningfully impact students’ transition to and through postsecondary institutions. And, when equipped with the right information and support, high school leaders can take actions that significantly increase their students’ postsecondary success.