February 7, 2017
Our communities have the most to gain when all citizens have smooth pathways to complete a postsecondary degree or credential of value. Unfortunately, today, too many transitional barriers stand in the way of all students meeting this goal. States should aggressively attack those barriers, helping all students—especially those from traditionally underserved populations—reach their postsecondary aspirations while meeting the future economic needs of the country.
Businesses tell us they need more workers with postsecondary training and they are willing to pay for it. More than 65 percent of all jobs will require a two- or four-year degree or credential with labor market value. These jobs pay significantly more and provide greater opportunities for future growth.
Despite the demand and opportunity, significant gaps in credential attainment remain. To meet the 65 percent projection, every state will need to increase the number of students by more than one percent annually. While higher education is clearly on the hook for ensuring students are retained and demonstrate timely progression toward completion, student preparation for postsecondary education remains a challenge in all states.
Transition barriers that students encounter are wasteful. Time spent in developmental education depletes student finances, decreases likelihood of credential attainment, postpones access to high quality wages for students and, ultimately, slows momentum for states to build a workforce ready to confront the demands of a future economy.
When students arrive at postsecondary institutions prepared for credit-bearing coursework, or carry with them postsecondary credit earned while in high school, they are more likely to complete a degree or certificate. This is especially true for students of color and those from low-income families. Our challenge —and solution— lies in the ability of our education pipeline to produce equitable outcomes, ensuring all students have the necessary supports to transition to postsecondary education and training ready for success.
Fortunately, there have been significant advances that lay groundwork for an effective attack-strategy on student transitions: (1) Many states have set ambitious postsecondary attainment goals, providing a clear vision for the workforce needs of the state. (2) Most states have aligned the education standards used in K-12 with the expectations of postsecondary, credit-bearing coursework. (3) Finally, several states and communities have launched scholarship opportunities or “Promise Programs” that provide greater access to postsecondary institutions.
Despite these advances, there are key holes in state and local strategies that must be addressed if we’re to close the preparation gap. First, all states and communities need an arsenal of programs in their high schools that accelerate students into postsecondary, credit-bearing coursework. These programs should be co-developed by K-12 and higher education and triggered by college readiness indicators. There are proven models around the country, including the TN SAILS program in Tennessee and the Smart Scholars Program in New York.
Second, states should build on the postsecondary credential attainment goals they’ve set and align their K-12 goals accordingly. A common vision for the state’s education workforce pipeline opens the door for state leaders to identify high-impact opportunities to meet its postsecondary attainment goals.
Third, partnerships with communities and businesses that reconnect adults to higher education are critical to change our socioeconomic landscapes and shape our skilled workforce. Educators should employ the lessons we’ve learned about academic preparation, advising, and career pathways to build readily available onramps for adult learners at two- and four-year institutions.
Accelerating students’ transitions into postsecondary education and training must be a focal point of state education policy. Doing so will combat challenges of completion, equity, managing education costs, and building an educated workforce for today’s economy. We have successful models to attack these challenges. Let’s work together to bring them to scale in every state.
Shannon Gilkey is a Director at Education Strategy Group and leads the K-12/higher education alignment portfolio, which includes Higher Ed for Higher Standards, a coalition of postsecondary leaders committed to supporting alignment opportunities of K-12 and higher education.