Bridging the Gap

Colleges, school districts and college completion groups look to strengthen connections between colleges and K-12 to try to help more students prepare to succeed in higher education.

March 3, 2016

Educators and researchers have long urged colleges to get students on a college and career pathway as early as possible in order to raise completion rates.

But that’s often difficult to do when college students arrive underprepared. Either they’re behind academically and need remediation or they delay in deciding on a career path. This becomes especially hard as colleges -- and the K-12 school districts that first educate these students -- struggle to provide counselors and advisers to help students get on track.

A growing number of colleges and educators want to better prepare students by reaching them long before they fill out a college application. Minneapolis Public Schools looked to address this problem in 2006 with an initiative called My Life Plan. Similarly, Achieving the Dream, a completion-focused nonprofit group, is hoping a larger national initiative to better connect K-12 with community colleges and four-year institutions will help students be more successful.

“We know with research and common sense the conversation around postsecondary planning and college and career have to start early on,” said Danielle Jastrow, senior college and career coordinator and a former Minneapolis district coordinator for My Life Plan. “We don’t go through expecting them to come out with specific things, but we do want them to go through the thought process.”

Starting with the class of 2010, My Life Plan became a graduation requirement for Minneapolis students. The program initially started in the ninth grade but has since expanded to third graders. Those younger students may get their first taste of learning about colleges and why they need to make it a goal. And the plan becomes a requirement in the sixth grade.

Minneapolis is the state's third-largest school district, with about 35,000 students. Yet many of those students aren't assigned a school counselor. Jastrow said the state is ranked at the bottom in the country when it comes to student-to-counselor ratio, which is 800 to one.

The plan starts broadly enough for students and happens within the classroom. Students are asked to answer or at least think about their interests and strengths. Eventually, as they progress, those goals, skills and interests are narrowed down and correlated to their courses. However, the key is not to pigeonhole these students into a specific career path, but to find the careers -- and eventually the college courses and degree paths -- that fit, for example, a social student who likes to solve problems or an introvert who is a visual learner.

“We know 70 percent of jobs available to them aren't created yet, so we're working on skill building and reflective pieces and tools rather than coming up with a concrete answer,” Jastrow said. “People talk about the bachelor's degree as the new high school diploma with the understanding that every single job will require some training beyond high school, whether it's an apprenticeship, a two-year degree, a certificate … We want students to understand what training or education they need.”

Similar initiatives have cropped up in other places. Long Beach City College in California works with its local school district to better identify the remedial needs of incoming students. And South Texas College works with local colleges to better prepare students using dual enrollment programs, precollege counseling and early college programs.

Colorado, meanwhile, has found success in reaching out to high school students early in order to better prepare them for college and to lower remediation rates. A few years ago the state started a pilot project that took early remediation into middle and high schools.

In Minnesota, My Life Plan requires students to research colleges, understand costs and compare different institutions. The district gives students the option of attending career or college fairs, or to shadow employers or employees to learn about their jobs. There's flexibility within the plan in order to accommodate students with disabilities and English-language learners, said Jastrow.

At the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities, there is a noticeable difference between students the university recruits who have gone through My Life Plan versus those who haven't, at least anecdotally, said Keyana Scales, the university's director of freshman recruitment and scholarships. That difference is important when recruiters are looking to admit students.

“I see a difference in students who are very intentional about the college prep process versus those who aren't. And it's in the timing of submitting applications, the courses they've taken in high school and how those courses align with a [college] academic program of choice,” Scales said. “The college search process starts as early as the eighth grade -- that's when you have the ability to select courses that put you in the space to prepare for the college admission process.”

At the university, that means if students already are prepared for what career path they want, they're not entering college and scrambling to pick an academic program, Scales said. That can be a costly endeavor for students, since it delays them on their way toward completing college -- and increases the cost. A recent survey of higher education leaders found that respondents felt guided degree pathways and proactive advising led to the greatest chance in boosting degree completion.

It's also why Achieving the Dream announced it had teamed up with Hobsons, which partnered on My Life Plan platform in Minneapolis, to develop a plan that would help students reach their life goals from elementary school to employment. The group and Hobsons will host a meeting of representatives from PK-20 (prekindergarten through a graduate degree) this fall to examine how they can better synchronize advising, curriculum, enrollment, career and workforce development.

“We need bold approaches if we are to see the changes in student outcomes on the scale our communities and our country need,” said Karen Stout, the group's president and chief executive officer, in written statement. “Student success begins long before students enroll in college, so we must ensure that leaders throughout the education pipeline are working together to keep students moving forward on their education journeys.”


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