Make Student Opportunity Automatic

Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Ryan Reyna

How often have you stopped enrolling in an activity because the process was too onerous? Or become frustrated when you have to re-enter information on online sites multiple times to access critical information or finish a transaction? These friction points pop up in our lives as a nuisance from time to time, but for most of us, they are infrequent and rarely impact us in ways that have long-term consequences.

That’s because from healthcare to commerce to sports, organizations are constantly on the lookout for ways to make the user experience “frictionless,” or help their clients maximize efficiency and effectiveness. For example, the simple change of automatically enrolling employees in a 401(k) retirement savings plan, rather than requiring proactive sign up, can more than double plan participation rates. Automatically emailing a copy of a travel itinerary rather than requiring a passenger to log into a system to retrieve it, potentially saves millions of dollars in customer service phone calls. 

This constant hunt for and smoothing of friction points is not something we are accustomed to in education; but it should be. We owe it to students to give them an education and training system that is frictionless and designed to maximize their chances of success and economic mobility. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate long-standing opportunity gaps between students of color, low-income students, and their peers, it’s time that states and communities take a more proactive role in accelerating students’ progress to and through college and on to employment. The following are four areas where states can and should build “automatic” approaches to support student success.

College- and Career-Ready Coursetaking

Completing a college- and career-ready (CCR) course of study is one of the strongest predictors of students enrolling and succeeding in postsecondary education and training. Recognizing this fact, over 20 states have either made the CCR course of study mandatory for all students or default students into that coursework, unless otherwise requested by a guardian. Setting CCR coursework as the default expectation, rather than a pathway that students must proactively opt into, results in much higher rates of students who ultimately complete a CCR course of study. This approach also does away with the vast information and access gaps that exist for families regarding the coursework needed for success after high school. 

Early Postsecondary Credit

Students who earn postsecondary credit while in high school—as a result of dual credit, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, earning an industry-recognized credential, etc—find many long-term benefits, including attaining postsecondary credentials at a higher rate than their peers. Unfortunately, in nearly every state, the proportion of students of color and low-income students participating and succeeding in these opportunities falls short of their comparative enrollment figures. Starting in the 2021-22 school year, Washington will require automatic academic acceleration policies for all students. Moving away from the traditional opt-in or educator-recommendation-based approaches for enrolling in advanced courses, HB 1599 will require school districts to place students into the next most rigorous course in a particular subject if they meet standards on the state’s exams. Districts that used this automatic placement policy prior to the passage of the law saw significant increases in the number of traditionally underserved students in advanced courses. 

College Admissions

Recognizing that the process of applying to college is itself a barrier for some students in making the transition to higher education, Idaho created a program to proactively reach out to students and let them know they are automatically accepted to the state’s public institutions. Based on a student’s grade point average and SAT/ACT scores, a student receives a letter from the state indicating which institutions they are eligible to attend (see figure below). In the four years the policy has been in place, the state has reduced the gap in seamless enrollment for low-income students, and students of color who received the letter enrolled in college at higher rates than White students who received a similar letter. The state also found a positive impact on first-generation college-going students. For students whose parents did not graduate from high school, 45 percent of students indicated that the direct admissions letters had a positive impact on their decision to attend college. Based on the strength of the Idaho program, both South Dakota and Illinois have moved to create their own direct admissions programs.

Two-to-Four-Year Transfer Pathways

We know there are millions of “good jobs” that require less than a bachelor’s degree and more than a high school diploma. In this way, community colleges are and will continue to be an economic engine for the country. Many students enter community college with the goal of transferring to a four-year institution to earn a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, the national data on transfer is not promising; fewer than one-third of community college students transfer within six years of initial enrollment. And those that do often find themselves facing significant hurdles in transferring credits, leading to additional costs and time that only reduce their chances of attaining a bachelor’s degree. To smooth this process, about 20 states have set out specific transfer pathways that guarantee a set of courses will transfer to a particular degree program at a particular four-year institution. Tennessee and a handful of other states actually guarantee that the courses can transfer to any public institution and count toward the completion of the major. 

There are many other areas of educational policymaking related to the transitions between high school, higher education, and the workforce that could benefit from this type of automatic thinking. For instance, what if all high school career pathways automatically led to an industry credential that had both labor market value and resulted in postsecondary credit? Or what if every low-income, high-achieving student automatically received a mentor to help them navigate the college application, selection, financial aid, and matriculation processes? Or how about if every returning adult learner automatically received prior credit for their previous educational and work experiences? 

Instead of putting up and maintaining roadblocks on the paths to student success, we need to be seeking out new ways to make the paths frictionless. As a country, we’ve designed our educational and training systems to result in failure for far too many individuals, with the greatest impact felt by individuals of color and those from low-income backgrounds. It’s about time we design our way to a new paradigm—one that catalyzes and supports success for each individual.