Fresno’s Support of Students’ College Access, From Application to Enrollment

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For many school districts, the biggest challenge in getting students to college is college readiness. California’s Fresno Unified School District (FUSD), however, has been up against a unique challenge: how to support students who are college-ready in taking advantage of their postsecondary choices. Based on districtwide data reported in a case study co-authored by the district’s then-Associate Superintendent for Equity and Access Jorge Aguilar, leaders found that the number of students from low-income families who were eligible to apply to California State University and University of California campuses and submitted applications was surprisingly low. These students also often only applied to just one institution, even though they could apply to up to eight colleges for free.

FUSD saw this as an equity, access and social justice issue: students weren’t aware of their options, which in turn hindered their trajectory to attend and complete college. The district jumped into gear to identify and understand this pattern and why it was happening. They started with the data they’d collected since 2009, focusing on the most recent three years, which revealed that students and their parents didn’t have the necessary information about the college application process, surrounding institutions of higher education, financial aid, and other policies to help low-income students. Moreover, the district realized it had not communicated to its students which colleges and universities matched their academic profiles and that school counselors lacked the knowledge and the time to support students in their postsecondary planning.

Understanding this information gap, FUSD recommitted to increasing the number of college-eligible students applying to CSUs and UCs—this time through a cycle of continuous improvement whereby they tested a solution, evaluated its outcome, and made adjustments. The biggest question FUSD asked was how to use its already-existing expertise to better target and support its students. The root cause they identified for why students weren’t applying in high numbers—a lack of information and knowledge about their options—prompted the district’s Equity and Access team to develop “I am Ready” packets. The packets, mailed to high school seniors who were eligible for CSU and UC universities, included information about campuses that matched students’ academic profiles.

Students were then paired with school counselors who were trained to better support their pipeline to college with deeper and more comprehensive guidance. In their regular visits with students, counselors were accountable for collecting and measuring data on why and when students did or did not apply to eligible campuses. They entered data into a dashboard that highlighted and synthesized progress at school sites across the district. As Jorge Aguilar, former associate superintendent for Equity and Access in FUSD, put it: “It’s ‘paper plus people’—the packet plus our academic counselors who provide personal guidance.”

The use of the packets coupled with the full support of school counselors showed promising results. In the first year, FUSD saw a 50 percent increase in the number of low-income students applying to CSU and UC schools outside of Fresno—a big win for the district. The district has also had a 16 percent increase in graduation rates from 2010-2016 and had reduced dropout rates by almost half: from 20.1 percent to 10.6 percent during that same time. Given that low-income students make up 85 percent of the district’s student population, the district has been able to scale this approach to all of its students relatively quickly with some modifications to data collection. The data collected will be evaluated in a continuous improvement process that will inform the Equity and Access team’s future improvement efforts. With support from counselors, administrators, and the community, the team has helped lead a successful campaign to narrow the access gap to postsecondary education and increase college matriculation for more of its students.

In this “Heroes in the Field” blog post and video, co-chair Bill Gates sits down with Jorge Aguilar—now Sacramento Superintendent—in a one-on-one interview in which Aguilar shares his background, his experience connecting students to college options while at Fresno Unified School District, and how he is using data-driven continuous improvement in Sacramento to keep more low-income students and students of color on track to graduation. Read more.