Higher Education

Five things schools can do now to increase postsecondary enrollment

Obligatory stock photo of happily enrolled postsecondary students

Obligatory stock photo of happily enrolled postsecondary students


  • Washington State has a skills gap problem – an estimated 40% of Washington students are earning post-high school credentials whereas over 70% of jobs require a postsecondary credential

  • Increasing postsecondary enrollment is critical to closing the skills gap and helping Washington students prepare for the great jobs available here

  • Schools can make progress to close the gap by tracking student postsecondary outcomes and assigning a leader to be on point for postsecondary enrollment

  • Parents can help by engaging in conversations with their students about post-high school planning, and learning more about key college-going behaviors

It’s September… the most wonderful time of the year if you’re an office supply store or teen clothing chain.  It also means it’s time for school districts and counselors to start building their student guidance plans for the coming school year.  To help with that, we’ve put together a tactical guide with top five things districts can do to help prepare their students for education after high school and boost postsecondary enrollment rates.

Why are we focusing on postsecondary enrollment?

First, for those less steeped in education wonkery, a brief case for why we’re focused on postsecondary enrollment.  Washington (and the nation at-large) has a significant education attainment gap – it’s estimated only 40% of Washington high school students go on to earn a postsecondary credential (e.g. a degree or certificate after high school – includes registered apprenticeship, 2-year, and 4-year degrees).  However, when reviewing labor market data, we see that more than 70% of jobs in Washington require a postsecondary credential.  This “skills gap” of 30% means a lot of Washington kids are not prepared for Washington jobs.

Over the past couple years, Kinetic West and the Partnership for Learning / Washington Roundtable, have worked together to analyze Washington’s skills gap to understand the key drivers leading to student postsecondary success.  While Washington high school graduation rates have been steadily increasing over the past 10 years, and our postsecondary system is relatively efficient at graduating students once they are enrolled, our state trails the nation for the percent of high school students that enroll in a postsecondary program… and it’s getting worse.  To reach 70% credential attainment, we must focus on postsecondary enrollment – more students enrolled means more students who will complete.

Fortunately, there are many things that districts, high schools, and parents can do to help their students enroll in and graduate from postsecondary programs.  Today, we’ll highlight five actions schools can take to boost postsecondary enrollment, with a bonus list for parents wanting to know how they can help.

Five actions schools can take to boost postsecondary enrollment

1.       Adopt postsecondary enrollment as a core district metric on par with high school graduation

Right now, there is not an organization or education body uniquely responsible for postsecondary enrollment.  High schools are focused on 12th grade completion, and colleges don’t step in until students show up on campus.  This leaves a gap where students who are otherwise ready for postsecondary don’t enroll – a phenomenon known as “summer melt”.

Schools can help reduce summer melt by tracking postsecondary enrollment for their students to understand which students aren’t showing up for college and why.  High schools and districts can start by reviewing their data on the state’s Education Research & Data Center High School Feedback Report.  There you can analyze students’ enrollment patterns, with breakdowns by free-and-reduced lunch rate, race / ethnicity, and high school performance.

2.       Appoint a senior school or district leader to be accountable for postsecondary enrollment

No matter the industry or job type, we all know what happens when everyone is accountable for a goal – no one is accountable for the goal.  For districts to improve, there needs to be a single person or team responsible for postsecondary enrollment.  Examples of “enrollment czars” include: career / college counselors, vice principals, or assistant superintendents.

3.       Create a “postsecondary for all” mindset among all faculty and staff

Each staff member from the guidance counselor to the custodian, from the lunchroom monitor to the principal needs to believe that all students can and should complete some postsecondary education.  Based on conversations with districts throughout the state, when students know postsecondary training is the expectation, they are more likely to enroll and complete.

4.       Provide dedicated school time for students to complete “college-going behaviors”

College-Going Behaviors are the steps students must complete to enroll in a postsecondary program.  These include things like filling out financial aid forms, taking the SAT / ACT, attending a college fair, etc. (see this handy guide from the Partnership for Learning).

To make sure students are aware of and can complete these College-Going Behaviors, they need time during the school day where they can ask teachers for help (e.g. during advisory or home room blocks).  Reserving classroom time is especially important for first generation students (e.g. those whose parents never attended postsecondary).  Without support at home, or dedicated help at school, first generation students may miss key steps required for admission or enrollment.

5.       Track individual student FAFSA / WASFA (financial aid form) completion

Financial aid can be a significant barrier for many low- and middle-income students to attend postsecondary programs.  To address this problem, the Washington legislature voted to expand the Washington College Grant to help students pay for post-high school training.  However, students must still complete financial aid paperwork (e.g. FAFSA / WASFA) to be eligible for funding.  As we’ve previously discussed, Washington is one of the lowest performing states for FAFSA completion (last year we ranked 48th in the nation).

Schools can help students receive financial aid support by tracking FAFSA / WASFA completion and supporting those who need help to finish.  The Washington State Achievement Council (WSAC) tracks district and school progress, and can provide student-level data to counselors.


Bonus(!) 3 things parents can do to help their students

1.       Start talking with your student early about post-high school pathways

There are many options for students to obtain fulfilling, family-wage careers including registered apprenticeships, 2-year associate degrees, and 4-year bachelor’s degrees.  Check out Washington’s Ready, Set, Grad or College Promise sites to learn more about the various options to discuss with your child.

2.       Work with your student on their High School and Beyond Plan (HSBP)

HSBPs are a graduation requirement for all Washington high school students.  These plans help students think about and prepare for careers and education after high school graduation.  Parents can use the HSBP to talk with students about their postsecondary plans.  Check out this short video for more details.

3.       Familiarize yourself with key College-Going Behaviors (CGBs) to help guide your student and seek out additional assistance for your family

There are a lot of steps to apply for and enroll in a postsecondary program – help your student learn the steps by familiarizing yourself with the necessary College-Going Behaviors.

Louisiana is beating Washington for FAFSA completion... and it's not even close



  • FAFSA completion rates are low across the nation (57%)

  • Washington ranks 48th in the nation for FAFSA completion at 46%; Washington high school seniors miss out on over $50M in federal Pell grants

  • Louisiana (77%), Tennessee (77%), and DC (71%) have the highest completion rates

  • Multiple ways for Washington to improve: (1) require FAFSA completion for a High School diploma, (2) increase student and family support to assist with completion, (3) require school districts and high schools to set annual goals for FAFSA completion and report against progress


Washington State ranks 48th for FAFSA completion

It’s been all over the news, in Washington State, and across the country: FAFSA completion rates are way too low.  

As a refresher, the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is a critical form that students must complete in order to secure financial assistance for college.  But despite the FAFSA’s importance, not enough students are filling out the form.  According to NCAN (National College Access network), the national FAFSA completion rate was just 57% for the 2018-2019 application cycle.  Washington mustered an anemic 46% completion, ranking 48th among all states and DC.  Practically, this equates to $50M in lost Federal Pell Grants.

The FAFSA is a key college-going behavior that’s strongly related to postsecondary enrollment: 90% of FAFSA completers enroll directly in college after high school graduation, while only 55% of non-completers do the same.

Lessons from around the U.S.

Louisiana, Tennessee and DC top the list with FAFSA completion rates nearly 30% higher than Washington’s. What are they doing to achieve these completion rates? And what can we learn? 

National FAFSA completion.png

No FAFSA, No Diploma in Louisiana (77% completion)

Louisiana made FAFSA a graduation requirement in 2017. In just one year, FAFSA completion rose by 26% across the state. To help students with the FAFSA, Louisiana’s Office of Student Financial Aid hosts completion workshops at high schools during the school day. The Office also holds community events like FAFSA Block Parties to help students with last-minute completions or corrections (support even extends into the summer!).

LA FAFSA Block party.jpg

A promising future in Tennessee (77% completion)

In 2014, Tennessee enacted the Tennessee Promise Scholarship, guaranteeing 2 years of free community college to all students.  In order to be eligible for Promise scholarships, all students must fill out the FAFSA. To assist students, Tennessee created a trained corps of outreach specialists in each county.  Corps members lead workshops, provide information on scholarships and loans, and are available for individualized assistance to students and families.


What gets measured, gets done in DC (71% completion)

Schools in DC achieve high completion by focusing on goal setting and measurement. Schools set annual completion goals and compete with each other for the highest completion rates.  Every two weeks, FAFSA data is formatted into a summary table by the DC State Education Agency and is emailed to all school leaders and staff involved in FAFSA completion. As a student reward, schools host FAFSA completion celebrations at the end of each year.


How is Washington State addressing FAFSA completion?

Similar to DC, Washington State makes available FAFSA and WASFA (state aid application) completion data to school counselors via an online portal (check out a public-facing view here).  WSAC’s 12th Year Campaign partners with schools and community-based organizations to provide training and resources to students and families. And with the expansion of the Washington College Grant, we are on our way to our own “Washington Promise” scholarship.  However, there is still more work to be done. 


Washington opportunities for improvement:

  • Make FAFSA completion a high school graduation requirement (e.g. via High School and Beyond Plans)

  • Provide additional financial aid literacy and application support to students and families (e.g. via support grants to school districts, FAFSA completion nights, state-administered help lines, etc.)

  • Create a state office in charge of financial aid or hold existing agencies accountable for FAFSA completion

  • Require school and district leaders to set completion goals, track progress, and report outcomes on a regular basis (e.g. via OSPI school report card)

  • For additional details on FAFSA completion in Washington, check out WSAC’s latest brief on FAFSA completion

We can get there with a targeted effort. Let’s #BeatLouisiana.