Over the last several years, cities and states across the nation have invested enormous amounts of time, money, and energy in public and private efforts aimed at increasing postsecondary attainment. Many initiatives have focused on removing barriers like cost. But a paper entitled, published last June by , argues that the greatest barrier is the “seemingly intractable disconnect” between high school, higher education, and the workforce.
The transition to higher education is a rough one. Free community college initiatives remove the barrier of tuition but don’t cover living expenses. Only 25 percent of students in the graduating class of 2021, and unprepared students often end up in remedial courses that aren’t worth credit but still cost money—and tend to be ineffective to boot. Unlike affluent students with plugged-in parents and fancy college counselors, low-income and working-class kids are expected to track down a wide array of financial, academic, logistical, and other resources on their own, and are rarely offered consistent guidance. It’s no wonder millions of students fall through the cracks each year.
Enter the “Big Blur,” an educational model that aims to erase the dividing line between high school and college by creating new, cost-free institutions that serve sixteen- to twenty-year-old students in grades 11–14. Foundational coursework of eleventh and twelfth grade would be combined with more specific courses and training like those typically offered by community colleges. Work-based learning—including career exploration and on-the-job experience—would be a key feature. And students would have clear, step-by-step guided pathways that lead to postsecondary credentials and associate degrees within specific fields.
Creating and running these new institutions is a tall order, though, and doing it well largely depends on getting four key features right, according to JFF: incentives (in both accountability and finance), alignment, governance, and staffing. There are several well-known initiatives—programs like Pathways to Prosperity, Linked Learning, P-TECH, and New Skills for Youth—that have shown encouraging results. But these initiatives haven’t had a significant impact on the typical student experience. At the time of publication, no state, region, or network that JFF reviewed had successfully combined all these components. So what would it take to do it, and do it well? Here’s a look.
For incentives to work, they must be structured to encourage new ways of classifying student learning and support across grades 11–14. Educational institutions must be held accountable for specific outcomes, and funding streams should be flexible enough to be combined with other streams or dedicated as needed.
- Accountability incentives. Although many accountability systems include a metric for the completion of college-level work in high school, schools are primarily evaluated based on their graduation rates and test scores. Higher education accreditation protocols, meanwhile, often don’t examine graduates’ employment outcomes. A new model should include metrics that focus on the success of grade 11–14 cohorts. These could include year-to-year persistence, work-based learning experiences, credits earned, completion of a degree or credential with labor market value, rates of transfer into bachelor’s degree programs, and employment.
- Financial incentives. In many states, school funding systems reinforce siloed sectors. The ultimate goal for the new system would be to pool state and federal funding and use it to support “coherent” grade 11–14 experiences. Idaho’s Advanced Opportunities Scholarship offers one example. When students in Idaho reach seventh grade, they receive a stipend of $4,125 to use for education related expenses. Allowable expenses include state-approved college courses, AP tests, IB programs, professional certification fees, CTE courses, and apprenticeships.
In the current system, the K–12, higher education, and workforce sectors are misaligned. High school and college credits are calculated and tallied differently, class schedules aren’t compatible, and high school and college instructors are trained differently. CTE programs are arguably the farthest along when it comes to aligning and integrating across sectors. For example, regional vocation schools in Massachusetts offer in-demand career education, work-based learning, AP and dual-enrollment courses, and postsecondary certifications. But alignment is more complex in traditional high schools. For the new model to work, students entering eleventh grade should enroll in new institutions offering career pathways that lead to credentials with labor market value by the end of fourteenth grade. Once they’ve graduated, students should have the choice to either enter the workforce or pursue higher education.
Although state leaders often attempt to foster collaboration across sectors, it’s difficult to do without having similar goals and structures in place. Dual-enrollment systems offer a solid foundation, but many dual-enrollment programs aren’t scaled enough. To effectively design and run institutions that serve students in grades 11–14, a new decision-making body (perhaps similar to the New York Board of Regents) or an empowered senior leader will need to be put in place. To achieve truly unified governance, states will also need to do the following:
- Standardize high school and postsecondary credits.
- Ensure that high school and community colleges have similar schedules.
- Make a passing score on statewide high school assessments a trigger for admission to public community colleges without remediation.
- Adopt comparable per-student funding models for K–12 schools and higher education.
- Provide funding for internships for students who are sixteen to twenty years old.
- Require guided pathways starting in eleventh grade.
High school and college instructors go through distinct certification and training processes. High school teachers are trained in both content and pedagogy, and are expected to deliver content and offer student supports. College instructors, on the other hand, typically have graduate-level training in a specific area and are responsible for delivering content but not much else. To effectively teach students in grades 11–14, staff will need to be equipped to teach academic content, facilitate work experiences, and offer student support. One way to accomplish this would be to create a new corps of teachers that specializes in grades 11–14. Another way would be to align and combine teacher qualification and certification systems in a way that allows high school teachers to teach college level material and vice versa. One innovative approach is the University of Texas at Austin’s OnRamps Initiative, which offers dual-enrollment courses to high school students and professional development, like intensive summer training programs, mentoring, and virtual conferences and learning institutes to their instructors.
The paper closes with several action steps. They include crafting campaigns that will help the general public see the benefits of breaking the mold, and providing state leaders with strategies that they can incorporate in their public policy agendas. The authors also call for supporting third-party intermediaries, creating next-generation CTE programs and vocational centers, and establishing learning labs within CTE schools that could help transform traditional public schools.
Source: Nancy Hoffman, Joel Vargas, Kyle Hartung, Lexi Barrett, Erica Cuevas, Felicia Sullivan, Joanna Mawhinney, and Avni Nahar, “,” JFF (June 2021).