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Rethinking Curriculum: Why Postsecondary Planning Can't Wait Until 12th Grade

By: Reid Higginson   |   April 2024

"Rethinking Curriculum" advocates for early postsecondary planning, challenging the norm that waits until 12th grade. Reid Higginson, the Director of Policy Research at College Access: Research & Action (CARA), highlights the disproportionate impact on underserved students and the transformative benefits of integrating postsecondary exploration into high school curricula.

A growing body of research finds that students are not receiving adequate preparation for the postsecondary planning process. Far too many students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds are leading “constrained college searches,” failing to look at or apply to a robust range of postsecondary options that match their abilities and interests. Other students complete this initial step but fail to follow through on the necessary paperwork for admission or financial aid. 

Rethinking the high school curriculum can change this: when students spend time in class learning about postsecondary options and applications, they’re able to make more informed choices about their futures. Not only does this lead to increased college enrollment, but it also improves postsecondary persistence and results in higher earnings, especially for students from low-income backgrounds who often lack access to this information, both in and out of school. 

Despite its value, explicit class time dedicated to postsecondary exploration and applications remains far too uncommon. When postsecondary instruction does exist, it is often housed in tracks that do not reach all students, conducted outside the school building or school day by an external organization, or doesn’t start until 11th or 12th grade, after key decisions and developmental processes, like building social capital and a postsecondary-going identity, have already begun. 

What students need for postsecondary exploration 

In CARA’s experience working with over 60 high schools across the country, we’ve found that  informed, holistic, and successful postsecondary exploration requires instruction and support for first-gen students in four key areas, in increasing time and intensity: 

  • The range of postsecondary options in the United States. There’s a bewildering array of options after high school, from career preparation programs to thousands of colleges and universities. Yet many students are unaware of the wide range of options that may be good matches for them. 

  • The nature of jobs and careers and the paths that lead to them. While aspiring to fulfilling careers, first-generation students often have little exposure to a variety of professional fields and the multiple roles within them. Students need exposure to different professions, opportunities to explore how their interests and talents align with them, and knowledge of how to enter those fields through different majors and training programs. 

  • The postsecondary application process. Postsecondary applications are complex and multifaceted. To have the same opportunities as their peers from more privileged backgrounds, first-generation students deserve to learn early on what institutions will be asking about in relation to their high school performance (transcripts, recommendation letters, extracurriculars) and what they will be asked to produce during the application process itself (essays, applications, transcripts, fees, and test scores). 

  • The costs of postsecondary pathways and the financial aid available to pay for them. Too many students either cross off options because they believe they can’t afford them OR don’t take finances into account at all. Research shows that while these students may apply and be accepted to college, they are less likely to matriculate and graduate. 

Where high schools can find time for postsecondary preparation 

As described in the first post in this series, striving for equity means the above information and support should be available for all students within the structures of the school day. This means viewing it as an essential instructional area, with dedicated class time in grades 9-12. Creating time for this, however, can be a challenge: with staff and instructional time already spread thin, educators wonder how anything else can fit in the school schedule.  

However, in the schools we’ve worked in, we’ve found there are a range of creative ways to include these areas in a school’s schedule. Postsecondary instruction can be embedded in:  

  • Advisory classes 

  • Dedicated postsecondary classes  

  • Core subject area or CTE classes 

  • Special event days.  

As seen in the chart below, each of these four options has pros and cons. What’s most important is that schools choose what fits their own structures, needs, and staff capacity. 

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In our work, we’ve also found two important principles that hold across contexts.  

First, the scope of the curriculum needs to expand over time. In early grades, when students are just acclimating to high school and the goal is exposure and exploration, fewer lessons are needed. By 11th and 12th grade, when there is need for more hands-on application and matriculation support, a dedicated class is often required. Schools can do this in ways that make sense for them, creating customized curriculum maps, based on the existing resources at their school and the particular needs of their students and families.  

Second, while the ultimate goal is a curriculum that spans grades 9-12, we’ve found that schools are more successful when they don’t try to implement everything at once, but instead pilot curriculum one or two grades at a time, learning what works best in their own setting before expanding more broadly. 

How states can create the conditions for postsecondary success 

As with all aspects of postsecondary access, high schools can’t be expected to do this on their own–states play a key role in creating the enabling conditions for this work. One way to do this is by creating standards for postsecondary preparation. While academic standards aimed at college & career readiness are now widespread, standards around postsecondary exploration, financial aid, and application support are less common, especially in early grades. 

Two states that have done good work in this area are Illinois, with their PaCE (Postsecondary and Career Expectations) Framework, and Mississippi, which requires a College and Career Readiness course for graduation. Given the challenge of finding instructional time, it’s important that standards include a flexible range of ways to reach those goals. Additionally, as with all good legislation, any new standards should include support for the necessary professional development and staffing required to do the work. 

In the 21st century, earning some form of postsecondary credential has become a de facto requirement for access to a family-sustaining career. Let’s ensure the curriculum and support in high schools reflect that. 

As Director of Policy Research, Reid coordinates CARA’s work to study and share effective practices for postsecondary access and success. Collaborating with CARA’s programs and partners, he uses mixed methods to amplify the voices of students and practitioners and advocate for more equitable policy. Reid has a B.A. in Sociology from Wesleyan University and a Ph.D. in Education from Harvard University. Prior to CARA, he worked as an academic advisor at Bridgewater State University, conducted research on first-generation student experiences, and wrote about the history of alternative higher education reforms.