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Mind the Gap: How More Students Can Get to College and Career Success

March 8, 2021 | Anne Stanton

For generations, the vast majority of American students faced an “or.” At some point in high school, they were deemed to be college material, or not. So, they were encouraged to study for college or train for a trade. This “or” deepened disparities already in place, including those born of systemic racism. At the Linked Learning Alliance, we believe in the “power of plus.” It’s an idea that drives our approach, guaranteeing student centered learning that is amplified by the intersection of college and career readiness, robust adult relationships and student supports, and deep partnerships with industry and community. This combination ensures equitable opportunities so all students can pursue the full range of life options after high school graduation. And it points to real promise for more effective, equitable college experiences.

Today, there are tens of thousands of Linked Learning students across the state of California. These young people attend schools in districts that are diverse—small and large, rural and urban, mirroring the diversity of our state. The majority come from low-income families, are English language learners, first-generation college goers, and part of a population vastly underrepresented in higher education and high-paying jobs. With Linked Learning experiences, these students thrive in high school. Independent evaluation from SRI shows that, compared to peers in traditional schools, students in Linked Learning pathways earn more course credits, have higher graduation rates, and build more of the skills aligned with 21st century workforce needs. And, these results are particularly strong for students who start high school behind academically.

SRI’s decade-long evaluation also shows that these same Linked Learning students leave high school ahead with measurable momentum for their leap from K–12 to and through postsecondary. Upon graduation from a high-quality high school experience that blends academic learning with real-world, relevant work experiences, rich in relationships and support, these students stand ready—prepared, confident, and enthusiastic about what they will achieve in and after college. In fact, Linked Learning students with low prior achievement are more likely than peers in traditional schooling to enroll directly in college after high school and are more likely to enroll in a four-year rather than a two-year institution. Black students in Linked Learning are also more likely to enroll in a four-year rather than a two-year college.

Momentum Meets Barriers

Young people in Linked Learning pathways graduate high school full of promise and connected to a sense of purpose. Yet, despite the knowledge, skills, and mindsets they demonstrate at the start of their postsecondary journey, the SRI research also shows that significant barriers prevent too many Linked Learning students from continuing on their upward trajectory through postsecondary. And even for the young people who persevere and earn a postsecondary credential, the journey is often far more challenging than it needs to be, with many students forced to take significant detours in their pursuit of a college degree.

Following the conclusion of the SRI evaluation, the Linked Learning Alliance engaged the UCLA Center for Community Schooling to investigate and understand more deeply how Linked Learning students experience the transition to postsecondary education and careers. The UCLA study involved extensive interviews with Linked Learning alumni.

Through this qualitative research, we heard loud and clear that positive high school outcomes were directly connected to the nature of student experiences. For example, alumni reported that opportunities to build meaningful relationships with caring adults allowed them to feel understood as unique individuals with distinct interests, backgrounds, and life circumstances. Meanwhile, work-based learning experiences provided an opportunity to explore a range of careers, gain access to a professional network, and build work skills and social capital. Through an integrated program of study, alumni also had the opportunity to connect their academic coursework with their passions and to see why it mattered in realizing their aspirations. In sum, Linked Learning pathways provided a supportive space for alumni to learn about their postsecondary options, discover their passions, direct their learning, identify their many strengths and talents, and develop positive academic identities.

But the research also suggested when students graduate from Linked Learning pathways, the next leg of the journey in higher education can feel isolating and foreign: the culture and terrain unfamiliar, close relationships with peers and adults on large campuses absent, and the trade-offs confusing. These findings remind us of the serious inequities at play, not only while students prepare for, apply to, and enroll in college, but also during their transition to and through college. With this research in hand, we have a much clearer understanding of why young people with so much promise are veering off course despite starting college with such a solid foundation. We may also have a roadmap to create a smoother journey for transitioning students—at a point in time like no other in our history.

The Pandemic Is Is Exacerbating the Gaps, Making the Transition Even Harder

As COVID-19 ravages the state, educators are struggling to keep students engaged in school and on the path to college and career. The pandemic presents a particular threat to juniors and seniors who are nearing a decision point about what to do after high school. Research has shown that at-risk students already face tremendous obstacles navigating the transition from high school to college: difficulty knowing where to go and what to do, feelings of isolation and alienation, and trouble accessing financial aid to pay for basic living expenses. The fact that students are now stranded off-campus and disconnected from peers and counselors further compounds these challenges and existing inequities.

Proven, Systemic Solutions Can Transcend the Transition

With wide and growing disparities in opportunity and ongoing crises, we have our work cut out for us. How can we dismantle systemic racism and its effects in our communities while also developing the skilled and talented workforce we need to meet our economy’s new demands? We can make sure all students enjoy the power of plus instead of running up against the “or” while still in school. And we can see that promise through by ensuring all students experience a seamless transition—recognizing and working urgently to eliminate the gaps and siloed activities between our K–12, postsecondary, and workforce systems, as well as the additional barriers that derail young peoples’ progress.

We can also lean into what we know is working in each segment of education to support student success and proactively connect the dots between them. Both the K–12 and postsecondary segments of education have proven, evidence-based practices that deliberately seek to address the complex educational, social, and economic needs of students and, by so doing, keep them on the path of purpose.

Sustainable practices built through Linked Learning, now in more than 100 K–12 school districts, offer a model for bringing together stakeholders from across systems and sectors to define and produce better outcomes. Equally impactful and aligned efforts to close the equity gap are also at work in California’s higher education system. California’s Community Colleges are reforming themselves to provide students with strong career-oriented pathways and aligned student supports. Likewise, CSU’s’ Graduation Initiative 2025 is devoted to keeping all students on track to a timely graduation.

We have much progress to applaud in each segment of California’s education system. What we don’t have is a concerted intersegmental effort designed specifically to connect the dots between them. This needs to happen locally to develop strong program connections across segments and at the state level to develop a supportive policy environment. This kind of brick-by-brick bridge-building may not sound flashy, but it might just be the elusive solution that will help us achieve our collective goals for students, for communities and for our economy.

Let’s start by setting a table of equals where K–12, postsecondary, and workforce join together to identify the core challenges and barriers to true intersegmental collaboration and begin to deconstruct them. We might then be able to engage in a real co-design process—absent blame and with respect for the distinct wisdom and perspective each segment brings to that table—based on a true understanding of the gaps that persistently fell too many young people as they transition between them. Could that knowledge—shared and mutually owned—help us imagine and co-construct bridges that transcend the gaps? If so, we could ensure that all young people have the right to a seamless passage through high school, to and through postsecondary and on to a self-determined future.

Let’s Eliminate the Gap and Catalyze Lasting Change—Together

Without intersegmental policies and practices that work together toward the shared goal of keeping young people on the path to a meaningful credential and successful career, we needlessly stack the odds against them. Students need high-quality, integrated pathways that fuse their high school and postsecondary experiences and accelerate their momentum through challenging transitions.

Intentional collaboration and co-design across education and workforce segments can activate new partnerships and drive large-scale change when we need it most. The Linked Learning experience proves that when educators, policymakers, and employers listen to and learn from one another, they can develop solutions that enable systems and young people to achieve more in high school and discover their unlimited potential.

Strengthening the pipeline from K–12 to college and career requires an intersegmental perspective and approach, and a collective willingness to seek solutions that span education, industry, and community. Our students deserve our full efforts. The well-being of our communities and state depend on it.