High School Isn’t Enough

Every June, students take part in a time-honored tradition: Donning a cap and walking across the high school graduation stage. Surrounded by friends and family, these young adults bask in the glory of their success.

What’s lost in the fanfare of the occasion is that a high school diploma no longer equates to success; rather, we should think of it as simply a springboard to another, more important, stage of learning. To make sure that students and parents’ eyes are on the right prize, K-12 leaders need to prioritize postsecondary attainment in their long-term education goals.

High school graduation is a necessary, but not sufficient, step to meet the country’s future workforce needs. States and students must set their sights higher. Nearly two-thirds of all jobs in the future will require a postsecondary degree or certificate with labor market value.

More than just an economic imperative, the push for increased attainment is about leveling the playing field for traditionally underserved populations of students. Powerful new research confirms that college dramatically impacts the prospects of a student’s upward mobility, literally flipping the script for thousands of low income students annually.

Fortunately, governors and other state policy leaders have embraced this reality and established ambitious goals for increasing the percentage of adults with postsecondary credentials over the next 10 years. Over 30 states have set goals aligned with labor market projections, from Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 to Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s recently established goal of 70 percent adults with a postsecondary credential. And yet, K-12 system goals are too often disconnected from what’s necessary for the state to keep pace with its economic needs.

The increased focus on postsecondary credential attainment creates a perfect opportunity for state K-12 leaders to move beyond graduation as their driving goal for high schools and set their sights on postsecondary readiness, transitions and success.

States should take advantage of the Every Student Succeeds Act to align long-term K-12 and postsecondary goals to close the country’s economic and equity gaps. As a new brief by Higher Ed for Higher Standards – a project of Education Strategy Group – lays out, this can be accomplished in the following ways:

Make credential attainment the ultimate education goal. Use the state’s higher education goal as the starting point for establishing K-12 goals. Then map the trajectory of student progress from high school necessary to meet that goal. For instance, how many more students need to directly enroll in higher education to set the state on a path to meet its attainment goal? Tennessee’s draft Every Student Succeeds Act plan does just that: setting a long-term goal of a majority of high school graduates from the class of 2020 earning a postsecondary credential or degree, and creating targets that call for a 5 percent annual increase in higher education enrollment to set the state on the right path. Illinois, New Mexico and Vermont should also be celebrated for their efforts to establish vertically aligned goals in their recently submitted plans.

Establish aligned college and career readiness and postsecondary transition goals. For their K-12 goals, states should use the most predictive indicators of postsecondary student success. For instance, the academic intensity of a student’s high school curriculum is one of the most important components in predicting whether a student will succeed in college, so a state may choose to focus one of its goals on students completing a college- and career-ready course of study. Other measures apt for inclusion are: students meeting the college readiness benchmark on the high school assessment, earning college credit while in high school, and seamless postsecondary enrollment.

Don’t stop with state goals, give districts and schools targets too. Goals are only useful if they are used to drive change. It can be difficult for educators, parents and the public to understand aspirational state education goals if they are not connected to the reality of performance on the ground. The targets need to be broken down for each district and high school, so they know exactly what they need to do to contribute to the state’s goal. For instance, if course completion is a target indicator, then High School A will need to enroll 50 more students in advanced courses. This can help generate a targeted conversation about supports at the local level in a way that abstract goals cannot.

Over the last decade, we have seen vast improvement in the number of students graduating high school. Unfortunately, in our championing of record high school graduation rates – in traditional public schools and charters alike – we may have lost sight of the real goal: Making sure that students have opportunities to successfully engage in the economy. To do that, students will need a postsecondary credential with value in the labor market. Our vision for the future of education systems must drive toward that priority.

Ultimately, the Every Student Succeeds Act sets a floor for state action. It’s up to states to set their sights higher on postsecondary preparation, access, and success, and, most importantly, help all kids realize those goals.

Ryan Reyna
Senior Associate, Education Strategy Group

Note: This piece was originally published in U.S. News & World Report