The Kansas State Department of Education is asking schools to increase the number of students who go on to college or vocational programs within two years of leaving high school.
The department released new district-by-district data this month as part of its push toward that end.
The figures, calculated with information from the National Student Clearinghouse, indicate just over half of Kansas public high school graduates immediately pursue post-secondary education.
When those who don’t finish high school are included, the continuation rate drops to 44 percent.
Education commissioner Randy Watson said Thursday while the number of Kansas students going on to college compares well to other states, it doesn’t absolve Kansas of the need to improve.
“When you look at what we need to drive the economy in Kansas and to help every student have an opportunity to move into the middle class,” Watson said, “that number is woefully low.”
Department officials point to a Georgetown University report from 2013 that describes a changing employment landscape and estimates 71 percent of Kansas jobs in 2020 will require credentials beyond a high school diploma.
Kansas’ higher education officials have cited the same research in setting goals for the state’s public two- and four-year institutions to bolster recruiting and retention.
The Kansas Board of Regents’ target is for state universities, community colleges and technical schools to graduate about 53,000 students annually by 2020. A Regents report indicates the state is not on track to hit that target. Post-secondary institutions only awarded 43,100 credentials in 2016.
A key challenge to meeting the goal is making post-secondary education more accessible to demographic groups that traditionally face barriers to entry, such as teenagers from low-income families who would be first-generation college students.
The Georgetown report indicates this has implications not just for personal development but also the broader economy, as demand for workers with such credentials rises.
“The result is an increasing labor shortage caused by the slowing pace of post-secondary attainment and the quickening pace of educational demand,” the report says.
Watson said over the decade-plus that the test-heavy federal No Child Left Behind policy was in place, Kansas saw scores on standardized math and English tests climb, but post-secondary achievement didn’t grow proportionately.
The education department won’t dictate how high schools should improve post-secondary enrollment among their students, Watson said, but will expect to see growth over a period of several years.
“We’re not talking about the takeover of schools,” he said, referencing a measure some states have used with under-performing districts. “But we would dictate more programming that should take place in those schools.”
One approach the education department has been promoting is the idea of working with each student and their parents individually to craft high school study plans based on post-graduation goals.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics.