Listening to Beneficiaries: Student Feedback on College and Career Readiness

Jen Wilka

At YouthTruth, we believe that the best way to understand how students experience school is to go directly to the source and ask the students themselves. Since CEP developed YouthTruth in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008, we’ve surveyed more than 600,000 students. The data gathered helps school and district leaders — and education funders, too — make better-informed decisions and create positive change in their communities. But this data can also serve as an interesting pulse point to gauge how students are feeling on a national scale.

As the high school graduation rate in the U.S. continues to increase year-over-year, our team at YouthTruth wondered, how prepared do students actually feel for life after high school? With that question in mind, this summer we analyzed survey data from more than 55,000 high school students, collected between the fall of 2015 and winter of 2016, to more deeply understand how students are perceiving their own readiness for life after high school. And the data revealed some interesting insights.

Most students want to go to college.

The majority of students surveyed — 84 percent — report that they want to go to college. This is affirming of the college-going culture of schools and districts across the country, though it leaves room for improvement. Five percent of students do not want to go to college, while 11 percent are not sure.

But only half of students feel academically prepared for college.

Although most students want to go to college, only about half of all students feel that their school has helped them develop the skills and knowledge they will need for college-level classes. In the words of one student, “The things we learn help us pass tests so we can get a good grade, but we don’t learn basic skills for studying that will help us survive in college.” Strikingly, students’ sense of academic readiness does not improve as students get closer and closer to college.

Students find support services to be helpful — but most aren’t using them.

When asked about a variety of support services — ranging from college entrance exam preparation to counseling about how to apply for and pay for college — the majority of students who have used these services have found them to be helpful. However, most students aren’t accessing them. For example, 63 percent of students who accessed counseling about how to pay for college found it to be helpful — but a mere 19 percent of students reported using that service. This is especially concerning given that cost is one of the top reasons cited for students dropping out of college.

This aggregate data is sobering, but it’s an important illustration of the powerful insights that decision-makers in schools, communities, and foundations can glean when they ask students for their feedback. Students are the ones in their schools and classrooms day in and day out, and they have a unique perspective on what’s working and what’s not. This feedback clearly shows that there is still work to be done to help prepare students for the next steps in their lives after high school.

Why does this matter for philanthropy? The idea of asking for feedback from beneficiaries of programs, initiatives, and systems has gained momentum in recent years. Recent research from CEP found that, according to more than 200 foundation CEOs, the single most promising practice for the future of foundation philanthropy is “seeking to learn from the experiences of those they are trying to help.” The Fund for Shared Insight is a strong example of how funders can collaborate to elevate the voices of those they seek to impact, as well.

When it comes to listening — to young people, among others — this feels like a moment of significant need and great opportunity. For funders interested in improving education outcomes and experiences, asking students for their feedback — and truly listening to what they have to say — is a great place to start.

Jen Wilka is executive director of YouthTruth. Learn more about YouthTruth on its website or by following on Twitter at @Youth_Truth.

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