Boundaries Between High School and College No Longer Make Sense

By Joel Vargas, vice president at JFF

Our high school and higher education systems are experiencing momentous change right under our noses. As the economy demands more workers with postsecondary credentials, a growing number of teens are starting college early, piling up postsecondary credits while still in high school. Meanwhile, financial strain from falling enrollment due to a drop in the youth population is expected to force many colleges to close or merge.

These trends show no signs of slowing, leading me to a once-heretical question: In today’s environment of shifting secondary and postsecondary systems, is the historical boundary between high school and college still relevant?

It’s time to acknowledge that our old ways of operating no longer make sense and that incremental change isn’t keeping pace with the societal acceleration around us. We should try something completely different.

Imagine what it would look like not to have separate high schools and community colleges in every region — and instead create a more equitable system that can provide our country’s dynamic economy with the highly skilled, adaptable workers it needs.

To that end, let’s create entirely new higher education institutions that span grades 11–14. Explicitly designed to build our nation’s talent supply, they would offer high-value credentials, associate’s degrees, or opportunities to transfer to four-year degree programs.

They would not be the product of partnerships between existing K-12 and postsecondary systems, but innovative institutions with self-contained faculty, staff, and students prepared for such environments.

In some cases, they would replace existing high school and college services by combining them along different grade-level boundaries. Attending beyond grade 12 would not necessarily be compulsory. But at no cost to students, starting or completing a postsecondary credential with high value in the local labor market within a single setting would be highly appealing and a natural next step.

An independent state governing board would take responsibility. The schools would have their own budgets from state and local taxes (shifting funding from parts of the existing model to the new one) and would hire instructors specially credentialed to teach there. Because the schools would be postsecondary institutions, the students would be eligible for state and federal financial aid to supplement state and local funding.

As our economy continues its rapid pace of change, we clearly need more adaptive and innovative education systems. We must provide far more efficient routes for young people of all backgrounds to earn postsecondary credentials that lead to family-supporting careers. And we must equip them with the skills in problem solving, communication, and application of knowledge that are already at a premium.

What I’ve laid out here is a vision, not a detailed proposal. But there’s evidence and precedent — as well as a compelling economic argument — to support experimentation along these lines.

Hundreds of small early college high schools across the country already successfully blend the high school and college years, showing impressive gains in educational persistence and college completion. JFF played a pioneering role in the development of early colleges, helping partners to create more than 280 since 2002.

Their outstanding results with the low-income youth and other underrepresented young people who comprise most of their population is particularly notable. Research shows that early college students graduated high school at a seven-percent higher rate on average than peers at other high schools. In addition, 30 percent earned an associate’s degree or other postsecondary credential prior to graduating high school compared to very few nationally, according to JFF data.

Any growth in the nation’s college population in the future will come from increasingly racially diverse groups whose postsecondary success must be better supported by colleges than it has been historically. There is much to learn from the success of early college schools even as their expansion has been restricted by siloed K-12 and higher education funding, policies, and structures — boundaries that this proposal would eliminate.

Grade 11–14 schools would also leverage the comparative advantages and assets high schools and colleges have instead of segmenting them. For example, community and technical colleges tend to have stronger connections to local industry, and employers are more apt to see their graduates as potential employees.

On the other hand, high school educators still generally view the social-emotional and academic support of students as their responsibility. In contrast, students are in college of their own volition, and the general collegiate ethos is that students should manage their own learning. Sink or swim, higher education says, it’s up to them — one of the reasons the transition from high school to college can be so jarring that only 58 percent of enrollees graduate.

Ultimately, this new approach would thrive, or not, based on demand for a strong alternative to the status quo. That’s the force behind the continued growth of dual enrollment models, an increasing number of teens voting with their feet to begin college before graduating high school and colleges welcoming them with open arms to offset the shrinking enrollment of older students. The new system would ultimately grow to the degree that students call for better options — and employers and society see value in the results.

Get more information on this topic in our latest report: Breaking the Boundaries Between High School and College: How to Scale Success for Low-Income Students.