School Districts

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.

Washington isn't the only state with many single-high school districts...maybe that's because mergers are super hard (Part II)


  • 79% of all Washington school districts have just one high school

  • 38% of urban school districts in Washington have only one high school

  • Washington is not alone in having many urban, single high school districts

  • District mergers are tough, but there are other options to increase scale

Recap from Part I

In our last episode, we dug into some of the stats on Washington school districts.  We found that 79% all Washington districts have just one high school.  Of districts in urban areas, 38% have only one high school (see “urban” definition at the end of this post). In multiple instances these solo high schools are within a short drive of high schools in neighboring districts.

How does Washington compare?

When looking at national data, Washington is in the middle-of the pack (#21) for percent of urban schools with one high school.  Our takeaway: urban, single high school districts are not a phenomenon isolated to Washington.

FINAL CM 4.jpg

A few other items of note:

  • Of Western peer states, Washington is still in the middle – between Oregon and California / Colorado

  • Maryland and Florida stood out for their low share of single high school districts (7% and 11%, respectively).  Our hunch: when district borders align with county borders (as is the case for MD, FL, and other states) districts can achieve greater scale… to be further analyzed another time!

  • 5 states (Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming) have no urban districts with only 1 high school – this is driven by a high overall rural population

  • A 6th state, Hawaii, also has 0 urban districts with 1 high school – that’s because there is only one school district for the entire state

Should there be fewer single-high school districts?

Both nationally and in Washington, there was a significant wave of school district consolidation during the middle part of the 1900s as our nation moved away from the “one-room schoolhouse” towards the elementary /middle / high school model that exists today.  As recently as 2009, former Washington Governor Gregoire requested that Washington’s state superintendent (OSPI) should make recommendations for further consolidation.  All this to say, consolidations are still an often-discussed topic.

As mentioned in part I, there are can be benefits to larger school districts and consolidation including more specialized course offerings, lower administrative costs, and potential reductions in cross-district inequities.

However, the actual work of consolidation – both political and logistical – can be a big barrier.  District consolidation involves significant efforts to convince voters, teachers, union members, and students that a merger is the right way to go – just ask Vermont and New York.  There is also a substantial amount of logistical legwork involved to plan and execute a merger (e.g. facilities changes, employee and payroll integration, revised student policies, new transportation routes, etc.), which can stretch over multiple years and cost millions of dollars.

Is there another way?

Just because consolidations are hard and politically-fraught, doesn’t mean districts shouldn’t pursue them.  But there are other ways to realize the scale benefits of larger districts without the challenges of consolidation – namely through partnerships with regional networks and intermediaries.

Washington already has a system of 9 regional networks, known as Educational Service Districts (ESDs).  These state-funded organizations shoulder some of the back-office, administrative, and professional development burden on behalf of school districts.

Districts can also work with intermediaries to address common challenges.  One great example is the Community Center for Education Results (CCER), which works with 7 South King County school districts to provide research and data analysis, as well as programmatic assistance to support worksite tours. (**Disclaimer: we work with CCER to help plan worksite tours – let us know if your organization wants to get involved!)

So what does it all mean?

We see an opportunity for individual school districts, and states more broadly, to re-evaluate current district boundaries to ensure students and tax payers are well-served by high quality and efficient education systems. In some cases, consolidation may be the best option, in other cases regional networks and intermediaries can help small districts achieve scale and avoid the pain of mergers.

Data sources: ERDC; 2015 , NCES ELSI Database; 2016-2017.

Methods: To determine the number of high schools in a district we looked at all schools with students enrolled in 12th grade.  We then excluded alternative, charter, and virtual schools as defined by the Department of Education NCES database.  We also excluded juvenile detention centers, community colleges, educational services districts, and schools with fewer than 10 high school students enrolled. To define “urban” districts, we used the NCES classification and included all cities and large / midsize suburbs.

Washington has a lot of school districts with just one high school - is that a bad thing? (Part I)

TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read”, aka SparkNotes for those non-Millennial readers)

  • Washington has approximately 300 school districts

  • 79% of all Washington school districts have just one high school; of urban districts 38% have only one high school

  • Significant trade-offs exist between small and large districts

  • District boundaries driven more by history than by county/city borders

WA school district map.PNG

Examining single-high school districts

During a recent project looking at Washington school district data, we noticed many school districts with only one high school.  We were specifically interested in the urban, single high school districts – places where the distance between rival high schools in neighboring districts is only a few miles.

And now that we have a blog, and a devoted readership base (tell your friends, sign up for our newsletter!) we decided it was time to dig into the data and answer a few nagging questions.  The first two we’ll answer today, the remaining in a follow-up, Part II post.

  • How common are urban, single-high school districts in Washington?

  • Are small districts bad?

  • How does Washington compare to other states?

  • What are the options for increasing school district scale efficiencies?

Setting the stage

First, let’s ground ourselves with the basic stats: Washington has ~300 school districts, with an average enrollment of 3,500 students.  Across the state, 79% have just one high school.

FINAL CM 3 graph 1.jpg

These results aren’t terribly surprising since more than 75% of Washington districts are rural.  These are districts where we’d expect only one high school across a large land area.

What we’re really interested however, are the urban districts with one high school.  For the purposes of our analysis, we categorized urban districts as those within or adjacent to major cities and suburbs with more than 100,000 people.  All other districts we classified as rural.

Using this methodology, we found 38% of urban districts have just one high school. Examples include University Place (near Tacoma), Tukwila (near Seattle), and East Valley (near Spokane).

FINAL CM 3 graph 2.JPG

Is this a bad thing?

Obligatory consultant answer: it depends. The research is quite mixed on optimal school district size.  What is clear are the trade-offs between small and large districts:

Large school districts

  • More specialized course offerings

  • Lower administrative costs per student

  • Potential for greater equity with larger districts

Small school districts


Aren’t district borders limited by county and city boundaries?

In Washington, as in many states, district borders are not beholden to municipal boundaries.  There are multiple examples of districts spanning county and city lines (e.g. Northshore and Nine Mile Falls) Boundaries are often a product of past rural consolidation efforts and previous political battles – essentially, there aren’t specific methods or rules that have resulted in the current patchwork we have today.

Check out Part II

In our follow-up post, we’ll look at how Washington’s school district map compares nationally, and discuss recent efforts to consolidate districts.

Data sources: ERDC; 2015 , NCES ELSI Database; 2016-2017.

Methods: To determine the number of high schools in a district we looked at all schools with students enrolled in 12th grade in the state of Washington.  We then excluded alternative, charter, and virtual schools as defined by the Department of Education NCES database.  We also excluded juvenile detention centers, community colleges, educational services districts, and schools with fewer than 10 high school students enrolled. To define “urban” districts, we used the NCES classification and included (all cities, and large and midsize suburbs).