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Rethinking How High Schools Support Postsecondary Pathways

By: Janice Bloom   |   February 2024

In a moment in which many young people are questioning the value of higher education, what responsibility do high schools have for helping them navigate towards their future? Learn more from Janice Bloom, co-director of College Access: Research & Action (CARA)

In a moment in which many young people are questioning the value of higher education, what responsibility do high schools have for helping them navigate towards their future?
 
As the institutions directly serving the largest population of young people nationwide, public high schools are the most logical location to position the next generation for successful adulthoods. Yet, in important ways, high schools were not designed to prepare young people for the transition to postsecondary education and a successful career. For example:

 

 
Through most of the 20th century, postsecondary education wasn’t needed to obtain a good, family sustaining career. This is no longer the case. Today, over 80% of good jobs require some form of postsecondary credential, yet high schools have not updated their expectations and structures to reflect the need to both prepare students academically and support them in choosing that next step in their journey.
 
The impact of this falls most heavily on the least-advantaged students. Students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds rely on their schools for the majority of navigational support. But because schools too often do not have that support available, many students are left without the information and help they need. This is one reason there is a 31 percentage point gap in college going between the highest and lowest income young adults, and it’s why students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to “undermatch” – attending less-selective schools where they are less likely to complete their degrees.
 
A shift, half finished
In the early 2000s, introduction of the Common Core brought a strong focus on improving classroom learning and raising academic standards to ensure that all students would graduate from high school prepared for college level work. What’s become clearer in the last fifteen years, however, is that academic preparation is only half of the picture. There’s also a need to support students’ exploration of postsecondary choices and their navigation of the multiple bureaucratic processes they need to engage with in order to access postsecondary education.
 
While the idea of creating a “college-going culture” has become a familiar way to describe this broader work, what exactly this means – and how to create it – is elusive at schools where many students do not arrive already steeped in family experiences with college. As a result, too many schools make only superficial changeshanging college pennants in hallways, having teachers wear their college t-shirts on Fridays – while failing to build the resources in order to provide each student the experiences, exposure and personalized attention needed to successfully navigate postsecondary transitions.
 
Completing the shift
At College Access: Research & Action (CARA) – a NYC-based organization that has been experimenting for the past thirteen years with whole school change – we believe that useful lessons are emerging about how to complete this shift. These lessons have emerged from working in more than 60 schools, across a range of school types in New York City and beyond. One of the most important of these lessons is that postsecondary access work cannot be siloed from the larger work of high schools. Schools realized more than a decade ago that “literacy” cannot be taught in only one class but must be infused across the curriculum; we have found that the same is true of postsecondary access.
 
This blog–the first in a series of five–describes a paradigm shift in how high schools approach postsecondary preparation. It outlines an expectation that all students should be able to do the entirety of their postsecondary explorations and applications within the structures of the school day.
 
Doing this requires a whole school effort to build what we call “postsecondary access infrastructure” – school structures to ensure that every student has multiple exposures to a variety of postsecondary paths, that they receive personalized, expert, and culturally competent counseling and support with their exploration and application.
 
In subsequent blog posts over the next several months, we will describe the pillars of this infrastructure:
 
1) Dedicate instructional time to teaching postsecondary access knowledge in grades 9-12. While it’s becoming more common for schools to devote time in 12th grade for seniors to work on their applications to college or other postsecondary destinations, making an informed decision and preparing to apply requires engaging in an exploration process from a much younger age, especially for students who have not grown up around family and friends with postsecondary credentials. There are many ways that schools can work this content into curriculum, but it is essential that it takes place within the school day and is regarded as being as essential as any other instructional area.
 
2) Guarantee access to individualized postsecondary counseling for all students. Counseling is often viewed as an “enrichment”—where services are limited and provided to those who knock first on a counselor’s door—rather an “entitlement” that assumes all first-generation, low-income students should get extensive, proactive, and individualized counseling support. This shift from an enrichment to an entitlement model requires a significant commitment of school resources: it requires that a school’s postsecondary staff develop expertise in the postsecondary search, application, and matriculation process, and be sufficiently resourced to provide individual support to seniors and 2nd semester juniors. When students meet one-on-one with a counselor to discuss their postsecondary plans, they are significantly more likely to enroll and succeed in college. Yet, low-income, Black, and Latinx students are much less likely to receive this type of one-on-one advising.
 
3) Make postsecondary support the work of the whole staff. In order to serve all students across the four years of high school, postsecondary access work has to move out of the counselor’s office and be taken on by a much wider set of school staff so that students can talk with any trusted adult in their school and receive accurate, up-to-date, and culturally-relevant information. Creating this begins at the top, with a committed leader who can set a vision for the school, develop structures to organize and distribute postsecondary work and provide the professional development needed to ensure all staff have a basic understanding of the postsecondary landscape and see it as part of their job.
 
4) Leverage data to ensure all students are equitably served. Data plays an essential role in making all of the work above happen, but too often schools’ work with data is overly shaped by accountability concerns. To holistically serve all students, schools need a proactive and comprehensive strategy that gathers and utilizes data in ongoing ways. This includes ensuring that counselors have real-time data at each step to help students stay on track with application processes and that school leaders are overseeing outcomes to identify equity gaps and areas of improvement. Enacting this strategy requires not only well-functioning data systems, but also the time, training, and clear allocation of roles to create a strong data culture.
Over the past thirteen years, we have seen exciting changes take place in schools working with CARA to shift their postsecondary infrastructure. In a three year study of a diverse group of seven NYC public schools, they saw an average matriculation increase of 11%, with the schools serving the most needy students seeing even larger gains. An administrator at one of these schools noted, “The culture of having kids have higher expectations than just getting a diploma is something I think everyone can attest to…the culture of the school has shifted over the past few years. It’s headed where we need to be.”
In the blogs that follow, we’ll provide examples of how educators have developed these pillars in their own schools. We also acknowledge that building postsecondary access infrastructure cannot be done by schools alone. Districts need to create the enabling conditions for universal access at the district level, and policy makers need to allocate funding at the state and federal level.
We’ll dig further into the details of this in upcoming posts.