What We're Learning: Helping Students Get To and Through College


Scan almost any school system web site and you will find a mission statement. While some make a broad commitment to helping students succeed in tomorrow’s world and reach their full potential, most prominently and proudly tout that they are preparing students for success after high school. But, despite these noble words, getting students across the high school graduation stage is often the real goal.

While they might have information that would help them understand if their students are actually on a successful path after high school, such as data on students’ college enrollment or success in  initial college-level courses, few school systems make these data a part of the progress monitoring systems or dashboards that set school leaders’ agendas. Fewer still prioritize the critical areas – such as effective postsecondary advising – where we have compelling evidence that high schools can meaningfully impact students’ transition to and through postsecondary institutions and into successful careers.

As such, I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear our To and Through Advising Challenge grantees lament that while their counselor ratios are too high, it’s the “other duties as assigned” culture, where already short-staffed counselors and advisors are pulled into a thousand other assignments, that embodies the mismatch between lofty goals and actual practice.

When systems don’t value postsecondary outcomes, counselors’ roles are often unclear and inconsistent. Advising students becomes yet another burden they bear alone, rather than a schoolwide priority. And, even in cases where there are community-based nonprofit organizations providing additional college access and career guidance to students, these partnerships often struggle to reach their full potential because systems that don’t prioritize postsecondary outcomes shunt their responsibility to these partner organizations.

The promising news is that many of our grantees, who are working to enact the conditions and develop the capabilities needed to adopt a “to and through” approach to advising for high school students, are learning what it takes to change these systems at both the district and school levels. One key factor is data. In the work we’re supporting to help more students get to and through college, we are learning that there needs to be a compelling case for change to ensure stakeholders, both in the school and in the community, are on board to take on the work that is required to make change happen.

As grantees better understand what happens to their students after high school, they are developing a case for change. They are seeing school leaders respond to high schools’ power to inform students’ life-changing decisions, such as whether to attend a college where few of its high school graduates have ever received a degree or one that that graduates more than half of its Pell-eligible students. Or, how high schools can help students choose between paths with high economic mobility and ones with high debt and low likelihood of attaining a credential. And, as leaders’ commitments grow, they are developing tools and structures to support advising that is no longer rationed to a few students, but systemic and proactive for many different students’ needs.

There is further momentum in cities across the country. In Newark,  New York and Miami, for example, traditional school districts are partnering with a charter network, KIPP, to collaborate and learn from effective practices to provide better guidance for students. And, in his newly published book, The B.A. Breakthrough, author Richard Whitmire offers rare positive news about the efforts to guide more first-generation students into and through college. With a number of compelling stories and profiles, Whitmire shares further evidence about what works and how it can be grown.

We’ll continue to share what we are learning across these and other initiatives we are supporting. Our partner, the National College Access Network, is also chronicling learning and sharing resources from their work supporting the Advising Challenge grantees.


Bill Tucker, Senior Advisor, K-12 Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Bill leads the K-12 team’s pathways work, focused on ensuring that students successfully navigate from high school into – and through – postsecondary education. Prior to joining the foundation he led Education Sector, a nationally prominent education policy think tank. Throughout his career, as both a founder and board member, he’s helped to launch and grow both nonprofit and for-profit entities focused on improving education, civil society, and community engagement.