Ensuring Equitable Postsecondary Transitions: A New Policy Benchmarking Tool for State Leaders

Thursday, November 17, 2022
Ryan Reyna

In today’s economic reality, a high school diploma is not enough for long-term economic mobility and success. Although the importance of education or training beyond high school has only grown, the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already-dangerous trend of students failing to successfully transition from high school into higher education. 

Even prior to the pandemic, nearly one million students each year were lost in the gap between high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment, posing a serious threat to both individuals’ economic opportunity and the strength of communities and economies. Perhaps more concerningly, the pandemic worsened long standing inequities, with students of color much more likely to have changed or canceled their plans to enroll in higher education. Building a more equitable society hinges in no small part on establishing equitable opportunities and robust support for enrollment and success in higher education—with a particular focus on students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. 

Although reversing the tide and ensuring successful, equitable postsecondary transitions for every student will require efforts from actors at all levels of the education system, state leaders play a particularly central role in setting the right conditions for students to succeed. ESG’s new policy benchmarking tool lays out the highest-leverage actions that states can take to close equity gaps in students’ postsecondary preparation, access, and success. It is intended to help state education leaders benchmark their current policies, programs, and initiatives against the recommended strategies and learn what each strategy looks like in action in order to support more equitable postsecondary and career transitions.

The tool is organized around five key themes; below is a high-level look at why each of these themes is critical to ensuring equitable postsecondary transitions for students. We encourage you to dig into the full tool and to stay tuned throughout 2023 for more on what this work looks like in practice. 

Establishing common expectations between K-12 and postsecondary

It’s important that expectations in K-12 and higher education align and connect to one other to allow for smooth student progression. Students need a clear understanding of what they need to know and be able to do in order to succeed in higher education. This means ensuring that K-12 leaders are paying attention to leading indicators of postsecondary preparedness, with a specific focus on closing equity gaps and meeting workforce needs, and intentionally building student pathways that begin in K-12 and continue seamlessly into higher education. 

Aligning postsecondary transitions data across sectors

To support students’ successful transitions to and through higher education, leaders at all levels need good data to understand where they are succeeding and where they might benefit from extra help. Too often, data systems are disconnected or incomplete, making it difficult to monitor progress and offer support. State leaders have a key role to play in building robust data systems and ensuring transparent reporting throughout the student experience. 

Facilitating seamless transitions

In order for students to make seamless transitions to higher education and training, they need to be academically prepared for success. State leaders can make the transition more seamless for students by instituting policies to ensure students are academically prepared for credit-bearing postsecondary coursework, providing ample opportunities for them to earn postsecondary credits while in high school, and offering alternatives to traditional remediation. 

Connecting education to the workforce

The goal of increased educational attainment is ultimately to prepare students for in-demand, well-paying careers. This means that education systems must be intentionally connected to the workforce so that students can seamlessly move into careers. States can take the lead in prioritizing the development of high-quality student pathways aligned to labor market needs, ensuring that there is statewide understanding of the credentials that hold value in the workforce, and making high-quality work-based learning experiences widely available. 

Extending navigational supports

To ensure more equitable postsecondary transitions, students need robust support to help them navigate the often-complex process of enrolling in higher education. State leaders can set the right conditions by prioritizing resources for academic and career advising, helping students afford higher education, and providing information and guidance specifically for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation college-going students. 

ESG’s new benchmarking tool offers specific foundational and advanced strategies in each of these categories, along with real examples from the field. Check it out and reach out to Briana Falduti to share your thoughts or to work with us to advance these key policies in your state.