Community Colleges Can and Should Lead on K-12/Higher Ed Alignment

Friday, November 30, 2018
Annie Phillips

As good jobs for those with only a high school diploma continue to decline, the associate degree offers high school graduates the most efficient option for upward mobility. But options alone aren’t enough to advance in this economy. Students need deliberate and connected pathways from high schools to good middle-skilled jobs, which can only be accomplished through better and more sustainable partnerships between local high schools and community colleges. In a new report released this week entitled, Aligning for Student Success, ESG, AACC and ACCT identify concrete strategies for community college leaders to strengthen these partnerships and ultimately improve students’ college and career outcomes.

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce estimates more than 30 million good jobs exist for those without a bachelor’s degree, making a strong case for the economic return of an associate degree. Indeed, their most recent report published this fall shows that, among good middle-skills jobs, those that require an associate degree are growing fastest, with 3.2 million good jobs added for workers with AAs since 1991. Yet despite the growing economic opportunity for associate degree holders, only about 9% of Americans actually possess an associate degree alone. And while strides have been made to increase attainment outcomes, the long and convoluted path from high school to a degree and a good job often curtails, rather than catapults, students.

Promisingly, opportunities to work across sectors to smooth those pathways from high school to college and career are expanding. Due to provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act, high schools in more than 40 states are now being measured, in part, based on how well they prepare students for postsecondary success. Perkins V, which was signed into law this past summer, now requires state career and technical education systems to include a strategy for joint planning and alignment between K-12 and postsecondary. Further, since the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act was passed in 2014, more states are aligning the work of local workforce development boards with the efforts of community colleges.

This new landscape creates an ideal moment for community colleges to take the lead and partner with K-12 school districts to help strengthen college and career readiness. Our report identifies three key areas higher education leaders can work together to improve student outcomes: academic supports to prepare all students for the rigors of college; navigational supports to better equip students with the knowledge, mindsets and behaviors needed to succeed in college; and, career supports to link the skills and competencies being taught in the classroom with workforce demands. Within each of these action areas, specific strategies can be taken to move the needle.

  • Within academic supports, community college leaders can collaborate with K-12 to integrate opportunities for students to “catch-up” to a college-ready level through high school transitions courses. In New York City, the Lessons in Navigating College Transitions (LINCT) English language course, which incorporates disciplinary content to prepare high school students not-yet deemed college-ready for the rigor of college courses, increased reading and writing proficiency at a rate more than 20 percentage points higher than comparison group students.
  • To support students as they navigate the maze of college, community college leaders can partner with K-12 to provide a continuous and aligned 9-14 advising experience. Miami Dade College’s Shark Path program—a tiered advising system with a pre-college component that includes a comprehensive series of programs, activities, and counseling sessions to guide students at every stage of their college and career journey—increased persistence rates by about 13 percentage points higher than that national average.
  • By serving as a convener of K-12, higher education and workforce partners, community colleges can support more students on the pathway to a career. Through the Central Ohio Compact, Columbus State Community College has taken a regional approach to career preparation in which they act as the intermediary between K-12 and private sector leaders to address workforce shortages. Since the Compact was formed in 2011, the percent of employed graduates in the region has risen steadily. In fact, Black graduates have outpaced their White peers and seen employment rates increase from 65% to 72% in that time period.

These institutions and others highlighted in Aligning for Student Success are evidence that when community colleges and K-12 schools work together, students are more likely to succeed in college, attain a credential and get a good job. It’s time for community colleges to double down on collaborative efforts so we can meet the ever-changing needs of our students and communities.