College Explorer, a free interactive tool, help students and their parents realize their potential for higher education, like this person jumping over a gap between two ledges.

Creating tools that bridge the gap between K-12 and college

College Explorer, a free interactive tool, help students and their parents realize their potential for higher education

To be honest, I cannot tell you how a single school-wide test in middle school helped me understand my potential career and college options. As a middle schooler, I didn’t see the connection of what I was learning to what’s possible post high school. I had limited resources to help me explore my options.

By the time I got to high school, I already made the decision that college was probably not for me. My first full-time position was setting up conference spaces at hotels. I didn’t go directly to college. I barely graduated high school. Careers, colleges, and majors all seemed like foreign objects meant for my peers. I had no idea an opportunity like being a research scientist was an option, and I was not alone in missing those opportunities.

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While there is an increase of information available to students, there is a shortage of connection points for students to understand what they are currently learning and how it leads to various career pathways. In short, our systems are desperately disconnected.

Nonetheless, students are still expected to climb one education ladder (K-12) and then jump to another sector of education (post-secondary) without much information on how well they might be prepared for success, on quality of the college, on costs, or future earnings. Often, students cannot find what’s best for them individually in the maze of decisions they face. And, while there is information available, information alone will not solve the disconnect between K-12 and higher education.

Students need tools that present this information in meaningful ways—ways that inspire conversations with parents, teachers, counselors, and district administrators. These tools need to align students’ current achievement, goals, and passions directly to well-fitting colleges, majors and careers.

That’s why my research colleagues and I at NWEA developed College Explorer, a free interactive tool designed to help parents, teachers, and counselors develop a plan for students to pursue higher education. The tool helps students as young as 5th grade understand which colleges they are already on track to enter, the academic growth goals they need to achieve to get into the school of their choice, and the variety of career options available to them at schools across the U.S.

The College Explorer matches longitudinal data on tests taken in middle and early high school to ACT and SAT tests taken at the end of high school. Connecting the tests students take in middle school to their future goals allows students to see how the lessons they learn today are relevant to their future.

Higher education planning tools like College Explorer also need to provide flexibility for students. Many students disqualify themselves from higher education opportunities, careers, and majors long before anyone else because of what they believe to be true about themselves, the higher education institutions, or the majors and careers they want to pursue.

The College Explorer allows students to experiment with seeing how MAP Growth scores relate directly to a variety of specific majors and technical education credentials. Connecting MAP Growth scores to majors as early as middle school can serve as a gateway to conversations around academic growth, college selection, and major or career choices. The same features provide opportunities for teachers, counselors, principles, and district administrators to point at data that encourages students to keep striving, and battles perceptions about costs. It also fights back against a mentality among many students that stipulates the type of institution a student is qualified for is solely based on where they live or what they score on a test years into the future. This information empowers students to realize their potential, and more importantly, for many students, connects them to information that helps chart a course of engagement and growth for their education.

It’s one thing to believe in something as an idea, and another to put plans in motion to achieve a goal. For families, choices have real costs. We are inundated with concerns about student debt accrued from a college degree, salaries gained from a specific career choice, and the return on investment in education. The College Explorer tool helps address these concerns with meaningful data that demonstrates how costs, graduation rates and overall median salaries of graduates can vary by institution type, and in the case of costs, by income level. It allows students and parents to begin understanding those costs, the debt burdens, and the possible range of earnings for career fields based on majors at institutions through institutional data reported to the federal government.

In addition, the tool highlights the specialized majors that are very popular at a specific institution, the percent of students who return a second year and go on to graduate in six years. These features were designed to help parents and students understand what institution type, cost, and major is a strong fit for each student and family, and presents a window into the rate of success for students in each institution.

If, as a country, we are to encourage each student to follow the path best suited for them, then we need to make sure these students have the ability to find that path. We need to design tools that encourage students to have conversations with parents, teachers, counselors, and others in their lives–before senior year.

We need to give students data in a manner that encourages them to run toward their goals, while also showing the realistic information on the costs and commitments that those goals entail. We need to design these tools in ways that are reengaging students who are disengaged in their education and combat long running systemic narratives about the careers or majors students should pursue, or the institutions they should attend. Finally, we need to do all this in a manner that continues to bring together our K-12 and Higher Education systems. The hope is that College Explorer adds to these conversations while opening post-secondary opportunities to all students.

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