By Michael T. Nietzel, Forbes
A new national coalition of major educational organizations was announced earlier this year. It’s called Level Up, and it combines the college access and student success agendas, with the overall goal of “increasing the number of high school students prepared for and successfully transitioning to postsecondary education and training programs.”
The objectives of the collaboration, managed by the Educational Strategy Group, will be familiar to anyone who has followed the work of such coalition partners as Complete College America, the National College Access Network, New America, the Charles A. Dana Center and Chiefs for Change:
- enable more high school graduates to earn postsecondary degrees or credentials;
- close the opportunity-for-education gaps facing low-income, first-generation-to-college, and minority students;
- help more students be academically ready to succeed in college and;
- bring institutional, local and state leaders together to implement effective college access and completion practices.
What’s unique about Level Up is that it integrates several policy strands to ensure successful movement from high school graduation to postsecondary participation to college completion. It marries the transformation ideas of the policy groups above to the big reach of k-12 and higher education advocacy groups such as the Education Commission of the States, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Association of Community College Trustees, and the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities.
It’s a potential powerhouse, which by dint of policy innovations, political action and funded demonstrations, can boost the college access and student success initiatives to a scale that has often been envisioned, but not yet achieved.
The Three Level Up Strategies
Align expectations. The coalition will tackle the hard – and frequently avoided – work of aligning k-12 curricula with postsecondary expectations. High school graduates should have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed immediately in postsecondary coursework. The best way to do this is to require high schools to offer a course of study that prepares graduates to enroll directly in credit-bearing college courses. In addition, relying solely on single-assessment placement tests to measure the readiness of high school graduates for introductory courses should be discontinued.
Facilitate seamless transitions. Designing clear pathways from high school through postsecondary completion is necessary both for students who can “speed up” their education by taking college-level courses in high school and for those who need to “catch up” their college readiness by receiving additional academic support while in 12th grade. Replacing traditional remedial courses with co-requisite remediation, creating multiple mathematics pathways for students whose career interests don’t require the traditional college algebra sequence, and increasing need-based financial aid are key elements of this strategy.
Extend navigational supports. Students of color, those from low-income backgrounds, and first-generation students often need additional assistance to surmount the barriers that block college access and success. These barriers are not limited to academics. Among the most important components of needed support are:
- Assisting applicants complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA),;
- Encouraging students to apply to colleges that will challenge and support them (rather than “undermatching” by settling for less rigorous schools), and;
- Preventing the “summer melt” problem, where 20% of students intending to enroll in higher education don’t show up for the initial fall semester.
The key tasks are to set students on the postsecondary beam while in high school and keep them there until they have earned a meaningful credential.
The fairness, quality and outcomes of higher education are facing renewed questions, driven by the recent admissions cheating scandal, rising tuition and relatively stagnant graduation rates. Educators must address these questions so that confidence in the value of advanced education is justified.
Level Up views this challenge as something of a four-leg relay race. Out of the blocks, high-school curricula must be well-aligned with the academic expectations of higher education. High school graduates – particularly those facing academic and personal obstacles – need the support necessary to take the baton and enroll in postsecondary education. Then, they need to keep in the race, succeeding in coursework relevant to their aspirations. Finally, they must persist, driving to the finish line and earning a quality credential that prepares them well for life and work.
Level Up’s suite of well-conceived strategies has excellent potential to improve postsecondary transitions. Now, it’s time to get on with it.