Post-secondary education can transform lives and communities. Unfortunately, while many students aspire to education beyond high school, they often cannot attain it. Researchers at Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region office have been working with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to understand the environmental factors that predict whether a student will attain post-secondary education and how to create high school environments that foster success for students seeking post-secondary education.

The pilot study analyzed over 70 datasets from the Roanoke/Appalachian region and the Richmond City area of Virginia. These regions represent two very different subsets of the educational population in the Commonwealth, spanning both urban and rural communities. The study found that different factors in the environment were relevant to understanding patterns of post-secondary behavior. For instance, a larger proportion of urban students go on to four-year colleges, while rural students see higher value in two-year enrollment.

What are the most effective ways to encourage students to choose post-secondary education? Social Decision Analytics Laboratory researchers Bianica Pires and Ian Crandell have built a predictive model that they hope will help policymakers understand which factors may influence the chances of students going on to various post-secondary pathways.

“Post-secondary education is often important for future economic and social mobility. Large gaps in access to further education exist within communities and across sociodemographic lines,” said Pires, a research scientist based at Virginia Tech's National Capital Region facility. “We want to understand why this is the case, and how we can help high schools target resources to achieve the best post-secondary outcomes for their students.”

Much of the students’ decision-making is likely influenced by the culture of their high schools. Factors such as emphasis on academic achievement, access to postsecondary institutions, and the economic conditions of the surrounding community all feed into whether or not a student will go on to further education.

“Where a student goes after high school is not a one-size-fits-all problem,” said Crandell, a postdoctoral associate. “We want to understand what the right path is for each individual student, be that a two-year college, four-year institution, certificate program, or technical school. Our goal is to help high schools solve this problem for their own student bodies.”

Future plans are to scale this model to the entire state. In this way, perhaps policy makers can be given access to the tools they need to ensure a brighter future for their students and their communities.

Written by Tiffany Trent