It’s Time to Blur the Boundaries Between High School, College and Work

My pathway to college and a career was a narrow—and unlikely—success story. I attended low-performing elementary and middle schools in San Francisco, and no one in my family had ever gone to college. A middle school math teacher pushed me to go to a small citywide summer enrichment program that later provided me access to a scholarship at a selective private school—one that my family otherwise never could have afforded or even thought to send me to. There, my academic preparation for college was first-rate.

Even so, I still nearly fell off the college path. The school was not used to advising first-generation students who needed targeted coaching and guidance on college admissions and financial aid—and I couldn’t fall back on the advice of parents who had navigated the college selection process themselves. Then, going sight unseen across the country to Boston University was a challenging experience. It took me several months while working temporary jobs in Boston and losing a semester to get into the program I wanted and secure financial aid. The college ultimately was quite supportive, but the barriers to entry felt high.

Later, as a leader of programs like the ones that helped me, I met too many students whose dreams are thwarted by the countless obstacles littering the path to college and a career.

For millions of students from low-income backgrounds, the transition to college or the workforce from high school is a steep, sometimes insurmountable, climb. That transition can look more like a cliff: The supports and structure of high school fall away, revealing a chasm students must somehow cross alone. At a time when more than 4.6 million young Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 aren’t working or in school, it’s time to rethink whether the traditional boundaries between high school, college, and workforce are serving this new generation of learners.

Because, as helpful as it was for me, funding programs that help students finance and find their way through selective learning opportunities isn’t a solution that can operate at anywhere near the scale needed to serve the millions of underserved learners now facing the same precarious journey as I once was. Students today should have a multiplicity of pathways from education into careers—and the educational experiences that shape workforce success must begin long before high school graduation.

In many ways, these arbitrary boundaries are already starting to blur. For example, even as early as 2010, 15 percent of community college entrants (or 1.4 million students total) were still in high school, thanks to the growing prevalence of dual-enrollment programs. In some states, the share was as high as 37 percent. And since then, many states have sought to grow dual enrollment. More than 7,100 Texas high school students earned associate degrees in the 2018-19 academic year, and many of those credentials included industry certifications.

In states as varied as Indiana, New Jersey, and Louisiana, more and more students are graduating from high school having already earned an associate degree. In Massachusetts, a partnership between a public charter school and Massasoit Community College allowed more than half of its most recent senior class to graduate with an associate in arts degree, meaning they can already transfer into many colleges and universities as juniors.

At a time when most community colleges are suffering enrollment losses, the Community College of Vermont boosted its enrollment by 34 percent through a program that offered every graduating high school senior an opportunity to enroll in one course for free.

This “blurring” of secondary and postsecondary education could point to a new way forward: a model that is neither high school nor community college but a combination of the two that saves students time and money, while offering them new kinds of guided support and preparation for careers. Think of it as a school focused on grades 11 through 14, bringing together the foundational coursework of 11th and 12th grades with the knowledge, skills, and credentials most needed for today’s careers.

To many education leaders and policymakers, such an approach may seem too radical—at least for now. But there are still important steps we can take to encourage this shift and better prepare students for today’s workforce.

Perhaps inspired by the growth of dual enrollment, for example, state education and workforce policymakers could begin to foster a more unified approach by standardizing high school and postsecondary credit. They could work to sync high school and local community college schedules, allowing students to more easily enroll in and receive credit from both. They could also require guided pathways starting from 11th grade that reach into college, as well as provide more internship and work-based learning opportunities to 16- to 20-year olds.

Aligning assessments with community college admissions would help ensure more students pursue a postsecondary education. A passing score on a statewide high school assessment, for example, could automatically trigger a student’s admission to public community colleges without remediation. This is already happening; for example, California high schoolers can now use their Smarter Balanced test scores for placement in credit-bearing college courses without ever taking the SAT or ACT.

This reimagining of the divide between K-12, higher education, and workforce is overdue. For too long, our education and training systems have been trapped in far-outdated industrial era conceptions of adolescence, education and work. The reality is that the lines are starting to blur—and blurrier, in this case, just might be better.

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