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We must help high school juniors and seniors stay on the college path

May 21, 2020 | Anne Stanton

Across California, high school juniors and seniors are watching as milestones evaporate in the coronavirus crisis. Proms. Graduations. College tours. Performances. Sports. Even finals.

The feeling of loss is universal. But for youth who lack the safety net of privilege, the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities and threatens to derail their paths to college and career.

Amid unprecedented school closings, too many students are falling off the radar. Educators are working tirelessly to find them and address basic needs while pivoting to digital learning. But they know it’s not enough — we must do more to keep education connected to purpose for the students caught at the epicenter of the COVID-19 storm.

Leaders have taken steps in the right direction, easing high school graduation and post-secondary admissions requirements. But to prepare students for the giant leap from high school to college, we need to juggle the benefits of maximum flexibility with the possibility that lowered expectations could diminish motivation and dim aspirations.

Before this crisis started, California had another crisis brewing. Even as high school graduation rates increased steadily, just over half of California’s college students earned their associate degrees at a community college in three years or bachelor’s degrees in six years.

These data points reflect holes in the post-secondary pipeline with far too many low-income students slipping through during the transition from high school to college.

This even includes young people who are connected to purpose and engaged in high-quality college and career preparation such as Linked Learning, which blends real world learning with rigorous academics and comprehensive supports.

We need to do more to maintain connections, amplify student supports and bridge the gap between K-12 and higher education. This is the time to break down silos and connect proven solutions from both sectors.

Here are steps we can take to support juniors and seniors now:

Raise student voices — and rapidly respond. No other segment of students has seen their education come to such a screeching and indecisive halt. We must listen to students, understand their perspectives, learn from their experiences and treat them as equal partners in shaping their education and future.

For example, social distancing has eliminated most work-based learning and internships, opportunities for accelerated college credits and student support services just as students wrestle with tough decisions. Should they forego college and work to support their families? Should they rethink their college plans to be closer to home? By being proactive now, we can keep young people engaged and underscore their importance in developing solutions.

Connect critical supports — in high school and college. Students need individualized pathways from high school through college and career that embed comprehensive supports like counseling and individualized supplemental instruction. While this support helps students succeed in high school, we have seen young people struggle to persist in less-supportive college environments. Aligning supports from high school to and through college is a natural starting point.

Accelerate college-level learning — and make it meaningful. There is no return to the way things were for current high school juniors and seniors. But we can be proactive to help catapult them forward. It’s time to explore effective practices for accelerated learning across systems. K-12 and college leaders should rethink summer to replace lost learning time. And we must be brave enough to re-imagine the final year of high school and first year of college.

Dual enrollment, for example, helps students graduate high school, go to college, complete college degrees faster and with less debt. We must also involve industry as partners to ensure that we don’t sacrifice a generation of talent in the inevitable economic downturn.

California could launch a college-centered approach to apprenticeship that serves as an 11th- and 12th-grade capstone experience, helping students earn industry credentials and university admissions credit. Together these options would increase student motivation, reduce financial burden and improve the odds of earning a degree.

In times of crisis, we gain clarity,and the opportunity to do better. There is no greater time for K–12 and post-secondary leaders to coalesce around shared goals for learners. To do so requires concerted and systemic efforts to eliminate silos, accelerate what works and, most importantly, to put students’ needs at the center by giving them a seat at the decision-making table.

The time is now to keep the classes of 2020 and 2021 on a path to purpose — and to forge solutions that improve education for all.


Elisha Smith Arrillaga, Ph.D. is Executive Director of The Education Trust-West. Anne Stanton is President of the Linked Learning Alliance.

This op-ed was originally published by EdSource.