Why access to 4-year colleges?

While more students are attending college than ever before, ensuring that historically underrepresented students have equal access to college remains a challenge. Research shows that low-income students are still 20% less likely to go to college than their higher-income peers. In addition, both low-income and high-income students who go directly to a 2-year college are significantly less likely to earn a Bachelor’s degree. If we want to increase the chances that students will earn a 4-year degree, we need to help them go directly to 4-year college and to see this as a viable financial option for their families. We also need to graduate more students who are college ready—meaning they are aware, prepared, and see themselves as people who belong and can succeed in college. Already, the interventions being tested by this network have led to improvement:

  • FAFSA Completion: From the start of the NIC in 2015 to 2017, there was a 12.3 percentage point increase (from 65.8% to 78.1%) in the rate of students completing the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), compared with 47% in California. Within HTH schools the rate increased from 71% to 85%; FAFSA completion for low-income students increased from 77% to 84%. Notably, the Community School in Spokane achieved 100% FAFSA completion in 2017 (from 43% in 2016), and more than doubled the rate of students accepted to 4-year colleges (from 30% in 2016 to 62% in 2017).
  • CalGrant Awardance: From 2015 to 2017, the rate of low-income HTH students awarded a CalGrant increased from 55% to 70%.
  • 4-year College Application/Attendance: In 2017, of the schools participating in the college access impact group, 75% of students applied to at least one four-year school; 61% of students applied to four or more schools. Within HTH schools, we increased 4-year college attendance from 65% to 73%, cutting in half the gap for low income students (12% to 6%).

At the same time, we recognize that many students are still likely to enroll in a community college. We see both 4-year universities and community colleges as important partners in helping students ultimately succeed in college and life. This network will continue to work with our community college colleagues to redesign pathways, reconfigure placement policies, and support students in choosing community colleges that have demonstrated success with traditionally marginalized students.

Why continuous improvement?

At the core of continuous improvement are three simple, yet profound questions: What are we trying to accomplish? How will we know if a change is an improvement? What changes might we introduce, and why? As educators we often generate new ideas, reflect on our practice and make changes that we hope will improve student outcomes. Yet, we may struggle to set clear, measurable goals, or develop systematic ways for tracking our progress. Improvement science—with its emphasis on developing a clear theory of action, “practical measures” embedded in practice, quick iterative cycles to guide learning, and a network structure that facilitates sharing and accelerated learning—is a promising framework for scaffolding learning and scaling good ideas.

Why join? What are you committing to?

The goal of an improvement network is to close the gap between what we know and what we do, and to take effective interventions to scale. Together, we will use a continuous improvement framework framework to:

  • Explore root causes contributing to college access issues in our own systems
  • Engage in iterative learning cycles to test/refine “high leverage” change ideas across diverse contexts so we can discover what works, for whom, under what conditions
  • Build our collective capacity to engage in sustained improvement work
  • Make measurable progress toward our shared aim

The Center for Research on Equity and Innovation will operate as a hub for this work by:

  • Providing training, tools and concrete resources for engaging in improvement science to support college access
  • Synthesizing current research and evidence-based practices related to college access
  •  Bringing participants together through in-person convenings in San Diego and monthly virtual convenings to support iterative learning cycles, learn from experts, and share learning/progress across our collaborative.
  •  Providing practical tools/support for collecting and tracking data to monitor progress related to FAFSA completion, CalGrant eligibility and the college application process.

School/district teams will engage in a series of iterative learning cycles to test/adapt “high-leverage” interventions that support college access. By having teams in different schools/districts testing the same interventions, we hope to learn how these interventions might be adapted and modified across a variety of contexts, thereby increasing their potential for broader impact and spread.

Participating teams also commit to collecting, tracking and sharing relevant data— disaggregated by race/ethnicity, gender, and FRL status—at key points in the year to establish a baseline and assess impact. This includes:

  • FAFSA completion
  • CalGrant awardance
  • College Applications:
    % of students who apply to at least one 4 year college
    % of students who apply to at least four 4 year colleges
    % of students who are accepted and plan to attend a 4-year college
  • Student Surveys; we will provide a survey for students to rate perceptions of support for the application process and the value of particular interventions.

Commitment to data is critical to assess the impact of our collective work and guide each team’s next steps. We recognize that some schools will be further along in collecting this data. CREI faculty will work with participating teams to access this data, and provide simple trackers schools can use to track milestones in the application process, as well as FAFSA completion and CalGrant eligibility (schools are also welcome to use their own internal tools that track these same tasks). This data will not be used for accountability purposes, but to guide our ongoing learning and improvement efforts.

 Conveening Details

High Tech High will host three two day conveenings for participating teams at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education in San Diego. The dates for the 2018-19 conveenings are December 6th and 7th,  February 7th and 8th, and May 9th and 10th. 

Who should be on your team? How much does it cost?

The ideal team is 4-8 people, depending on the size of the school, and composed of an administrator, 1-2 college counselors, a data person, 1-2 senior teachers/advisors who help support the college application process and district leadership. Someone on the team should be a designated “data person” who ensures that the above data is collected and shared with the CREI team.

This project is generously supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and free for participants. All travel costs will be covered. In addition, substitute teacher costs will be paid for.

How can you join?

Please complete the initial application prior to September 17th 11:59PM. We will contact teams advancing to the second round to schedule a team call or site visit. Accepted teams will then provide initial data and complete an MOU before being formally accepted into the network.


Avery, C., J.S. Howell, & L.C. Page (2014). “A Review of the Role of College Applications on Students’ Postsecondary Outcomes,” Research Brief, New York, NY: The College Board.

Bettinger, E.P., Long, B.T, Oreopoulos, P, & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2009) The Role of Simplification and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Bryk, A. S., Gomez, L. M., & Grunow, A. (2011). Getting ideas into action: Building networked
improvement communities in education. In M. T. Hallinan (Ed.), Frontiers in Sociology of
Education (pp. 127–162). The Netherlands: Springer.

Cahalan M., & Perna, L. (2015) Indicators of higher education equity in the United States. Philadelphia, PA: Pell Institute. Accessed at http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_45_Year_Trend_Report.pdf

Castleman, B. L., & Page, L. C. (2016). Freshman Year Financial Aid Nudges: An Experiment to Increase
FAFSA Renewal and College Persistence. The Journal of Human Resources, 51(2), 389–415.

Conley, D., McGaughy, C., Kirtner, J., van der Valk, A., & Martinez-Wenzl, M. T. (2010). College readiness practices at 38 high schools and the development of the CollegeCareerReady school diagnostic tool. In American Educational Research Association. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center.

Farrington, C. A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance—A Critical Literature Review. Chicago, IL: Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Institute for Healthcare Improvement (2003). IHI’s collaborative model for achieving breakthrough
improvement (3). Retrieved from IHI website: http://www.ihi.org/resources/pages/ihiwhitepapers/thebreakthroughseriesihiscollaborativemodelforachievingbreakthroughimprovement.aspx

Langley, G., Moen, R., Nolan, K., Nolan, T., Norman, C., & Provost, L. (2009). The improvement guide: A
practical approach to enhancing organizational performance. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

McKinney, L., & Novak, H. (2013). The relationship between FAFSA filing and persistence among first-year community college students. Community College Review, 41(1), 63–85.

National Center for Education Statistics (2016). Percentage of recent high school completers enrolled in 2-year and 4-year colleges, by income level: 1975 through 2015. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce. Accessed at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d16/tables/dt16_302.30.asp?current=yes.

Yeager, D., Bryk, A., Muhich, J., Hausman, H., & Morales, L. (2013). Practical Measurement. Retrieved
from http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/resources/publications/practical-measurement/.

Zarate, M. E., & Pachon, H. P. (2006). Perceptions of College Financial Aid among California Latino Youth. Policy Brief. Tomas Rivera Policy Institute.