Building Bridges to Opportunity with Aligned Advising

Monday, February 22, 2021
Lauren Norton
Associate Director

Think back to being 15 years old. Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? Even if you did know, did you have a clear understanding of what it would take to get there? Did you know which classes you’d need to take both during and after high school, which internships you needed to pursue, and which degrees or certifications you’d need to complete to land your dream job? 

The average teenager does not have an innate, accurate, and comprehensive understanding of how to turn their career dreams into reality. They rely on experienced adults to help them navigate through their education and into the workforce. This guidance can come from many corners of their lives (including family, educators, coaches, mentors, supervisors, religious and community leaders). These relationships have a significant bearing on whether and how students progress into and through postsecondary education and training. Unfortunately, students’ access to, and ability to mobilize, these relationships varies greatly across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. If we are truly committed to closing opportunity gaps, as a country, we must collectively focus our attention on expanding advising and support to help students navigate the high school to postsecondary maze.  

Each year, an estimated one million students graduate from high school but do not successfully transition to higher education. For students of color, students from low-income families, and first-generation college students, the odds of attaining a postsecondary credential are far too low. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges that students – particularly those from traditionally underserved communities – face in navigating this transition. Amid growing concerns around affordability, health, and fulfilling family obligations, many students have changed or cancelled their postsecondary plans entirely. And as districts have quickly shifted to remote learning and support, some students have disengaged from education altogether. Now more than ever, these students need tailored guidance and supportive relationships. Without significant action, millions of students are at risk of becoming a “lost COVID cohort.” 

Postsecondary advising is an important lever for closing gaps in postsecondary access and success. Over the past decade, a number of leading states, districts, and college access organizations across the country have developed innovative strategies for helping students explore and prepare for life after high school. And with the growing implementation of guided pathways and “intrusive” advising, the higher education sector has worked to ensure that students remain on track to attain a credential.

Despite this progress, there is often a disconnect for advising in the transition from high school to college. The systems that interact with students usually do so independently from one another. This is due, in part, to the fact that neither sector truly “owns” the transition space, which can be seen in separate structures for funding, accountability, data, and staffing.

At ESG, we believe there is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen the alignment of advising systems across sectors to support significantly more students find postsecondary success. With the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we are in the midst of substantial work to help states and local communities build greater alignment in their advising systems and substantially reduce the number of students who get lost in the transition between high school and higher education. Below is a look at how we are beginning to tackle this work. 

Convening an Advising Expert Work Group 

After several months of research and interviews with leaders and practitioners from over a dozen states, districts, and organizations that are leading the field of postsecondary advising, ESG is convening an Expert Work Group with leaders from organizations that are at the forefront of this work. The insights gained are helping us develop a framework for how state and systems-level policy can dramatically expand aligned postsecondary advising. 

The Expert Work Group is generating solutions that address the following challenges for creating stronger alignment:

– Opportunity for Ownership: The absence of clear owners and definitions of success around postsecondary transitions creates a missed opportunity for visionary leadership, creates friction between stakeholders, and allows too many students to fall through the cracks.

– System Complexity: Too much data and too many disparate systems make navigating the maze from high school to postsecondary education and training unnecessarily burdensome for students, families, and advisors.

– Insufficient Capacity: Student-to-counselor ratios are high, and counselor duties are continually stretched. Technology can help build capacity, but it is insufficient for providing the necessary relational components of advising.

– Inequitable Access: High-quality advising is a given in highly-resourced schools, while only a nice-to-have in most public high schools. Low-income students, first-generation students, students of color, and rural students continue to face systemic barriers and insufficient support.

The Road Ahead

Later this spring, ESG will release recommendations to scale aligned advising in communities across the country. We will also collect, develop, and share additional tools and resources to support communities with implementing these recommendations – starting with a playbook of immediate actions for each of the major players in the space, including the federal government, states, districts, higher education, college access organizations, workforce, and philanthropy. From there, we will be offering our knowledge and expertise to provide technical assistance to states and communities looking to lead on this issue. To learn more, please contact Lauren Norton at