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HELPING STUDENTS NAVIGATE THE PATH TO COLLEGE: New Report From the What Works Clearinghouse Examines What High Schools Can Do to Boost College Enrollment

"Students who wait until their senior year to take the actual exam could miss a college application deadline or not have an opportunity to retake the test."

In August, ACT announced that only 23 percent of high school graduates from the Class of 2009 were ready to earn at least a “C” or higher in first-year college courses based on their scores in the four subject areas that ACT tests (English, math, reading, and science). While the percentage of students considered “college ready” in individual subjects was higher, ACT reported that a significant portion of high school graduates would need remediation in each subject. Specifically, only 67 percent were considered college ready in English, compared to 53 percent in reading, 42 percent in mathematics, and 28 percent in science.

In an effort to help more high schools graduate their students prepared for college, the What Works Clearinghouse recently released Helping Students Navigate the Path to College: What High Schools Can Do, a practice guide for high schools and school districts.4 The guide contains five recommendations on what educators, administrators, and policymakers can do, beginning in the ninth grade, to prepare students academically for college, assist them in completing the steps to college entry, and improve their likelihood of enrolling in college.

Recommendation 1: Offer courses and curricula that prepare students for college-level work, and ensure that students understand what constitutes a college-ready curriculum by ninth grade.

Although the report notes that every student should leave high school with the skills required to attend a two- or four-year institution, it acknowledges that low-income and first generation students are less likely than other students to complete a rigorous high school curriculum that prepares them for college. To better ensure that all students can take rigorous courses in high school, the report recommends that high schools should offer, as a default, a college-ready curriculum that includes specific courses in key subjects.

The report includes six examples of college-preparatory course requirements from around the country and, while it finds slight differences in the requirements, it notes that all six examples require four years of English, at least three years of mathematics, two or three years of science and social studies, and one to two years of a foreign language.

Recommendation 2: Utilize assessment measures throughout high school so that students are aware of how prepared they are for college, and assist them in overcoming deficiencies as they are identified.

Noting that 60 percent of college students are required to take a remedial course as a condition of enrollment, the report stresses the importance of high school assessments to determine whether students are on track for college matriculation. In addition, it also encourages high schools to gather information on postsecondary enrollment for past students to determine how well the schools are preparing students for college. For students who go off track, the report suggests that high schools create individualized plans for students to help them catch up.

Recommendation 3: Surround students with adults and peers who build and support their college aspirations.

The report finds that college students and college-educated adults can serve as mentors for high schools and provide guidance and support throughout the college-preparation process. It suggests that high schools facilitate these relationships through extracurricular activities such as debate clubs, or through career exploration activities such as job shadowing programs.

Recommendation 4: Engage and assist students in completing critical steps for college entry.

As part of this recommendation, the report calls on high schools to ensure that students prepare for, and take, appropriate college-entrance or admissions exams. It recommends that students begin taking practice exams by the eleventh grade and the actual exam before the twelfth grade. “Students who wait until their senior year to take the actual exam could miss a college application deadline or not have an opportunity to retake the test,” the report reads.

The report also suggests that high schools help students find a postsecondary program that matches their qualifications, interests, and goals, coordinates college visits, and assists students with the completion of college applications.

Recommendation 5: Increase families’ financial awareness, and help students apply for financial aid.

Noting that first-generation students and students from low-income families often have limited knowledge of financial aid opportunities and may overestimate the cost of college, the report suggests that high schools organize workshops for parents and students to inform them-prior to twelfth grade-about college affordability, scholarship and aid sources, and the financial aid process. It also suggests that high schools help students and parents complete financial aid forms prior to eligibility deadlines.

After each recommendation, the report includes a series of action steps necessary to ensure that the recommendation is faithfully implemented. In addition, it acknowledges a series of roadblocks that schools may encounter when implementing the recommendation-such as limited training or time constraints among teachers and counselors-and provides solutions to navigate these roadblocks.

The complete report is available at

4 The What Works Clearninghouse is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. More information on it is available at

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