Elements of a Strong Postsecondary Transitions Strategy

A strong postsecondary transitions strategy will, at a minimum, promote key policies and programmatic supports in the following three areas: align expectations, facilitate seamless transitions, and extend navigational supports. Actions in those areas must be targeted to support students of color and those from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. Closing equity gaps stands at the heart of this coalition, and at the heart of the nation’s attainment challenge.

For examples of the policy and practice elements that make up these three areas, read our report Taking Alignment to the Next Level.

Learn more about how states and communities are putting these elements into action in our Level Up Stories.

Align Expectations

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Establishing high and aligned expectations sends clear signals to students about the level of preparation necessary for postsecondary success. These expectations set the stage for increasing the number of young people who enroll in postsecondary education ready to engage in credit-bearing coursework.

  1. Link K-12 and higher education goals: The K-12 goals should connect to and support the state meeting its postsecondary attainment goals, which are aligned with future workforce needs. The goals should be both broad for all students and targeted to close equity gaps.
  2. Use higher-education-validated standards and assessments: The expected knowledge and skills for high school graduates should align with the expectations for entry into postsecondary credit-bearing coursework.
  3. Require a college- and career-ready course of study that aligns with postsecondary entrance expectations: High school course completion is one of the most powerful predictors of postsecondary success. All students need preparatory coursework that sets them up to transition directly into credit-bearing courses in higher education.
  4. Prioritize postsecondary transition metrics in K-12 and higher education accountability systems: High school success should be based, in part, on how well students are prepared for their next step. The success of higher education also should be based on students’ successful enrollment, course-taking, and retention beyond their first year.
  5. Use multiple measures for placement into credit-bearing coursework in higher education: A growing number of systems and institutions are going beyond using a single assessment to determine students’ placement into remedial or credit-bearing coursework.

Facilitate Seamless Transitions

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From 12th grade through the first year of postsecondary education, opportunities abound between systems to accelerate student momentum toward a postsecondary credential. Having clear pathways and academic supports can propel students into and through higher education.

  1. Promote articulated pathways that start in K-12 and culminate in a postsecondary credential of value that opens doors to the workforce: States and communities can strengthen and accelerate the career readiness of all students so they can earn credentials that have value in the labor market. 
  2. Offer multiple postsecondary credit opportunities in high school to “speed up” and “catch up” students before graduation: Students who earn postsecondary credit in high school are more likely to enroll in higher education and complete in a timely fashion. And students who are likely to need remediation upon matriculation can use the 12th grade year to receive additional academic supports.
  3. Put an end to traditional remediation: Postsecondary institutions should enroll students directly in credit-bearing courses and provide additional academic supports alongside their regular classes (e.g., co-requisite remediation).
  4. Restructure mathematics pathways: States and communities now have the opportunity to rethink students’ mathematics preparation in K-12 to better align with higher education’s movement away from the traditional college algebra sequence of courses. In this way, high school can launch students into credit-bearing work.
  5. Increase the financial accessibility of higher education: States and communities can develop financial aid programs, including College Promise programs, that enable more students to participate in higher education.

Extend Navigational Supports

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Far too often, even with adequate academic preparation, students of color, those from low-income families, and first-generation college students fall off track trying to navigate the high school to higher education maze. States and communities need to expand their notion of supports beyond academics, to help students traverse the myriad barriers that stand in their path to postsecondary access, enrollment and persistence. 

  1. Provide early and aligned academic and career advising: States and communities should promote a framework for college and career readiness that supports student exploration and identifies activities that will prepare students for postsecondary success, starting well before the 12th grade. And they should work to bridge K-12 and postsecondary advising systems, so that students have a seamless experience to and through college.
  2. Support students’ college application and selection process: States and communities should encourage students to apply to and select institutions that best fit their individual academic profile. In particular, low-income and first-generation college students are more likely to “undermatch”—or select less rigorous schools than they can handle—when applying and selecting institutions.
  3. Prioritize Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion: States and communities should make sure that all students can access appropriate financial aid supports, and that starts with supporting completion of the FAFSA. 
  4. Freeze summer melt: In some communities, more than 20 percent of students leave high school planning to enroll in higher education and never show up at the end of summer. States and institutions need novel approaches to bridge advising supports across K-12 and higher education to ensure that students matriculate prepared for first-year success.
  5. Guide student pathways in higher education: Higher education institutions and systems can simplify programs so that students know exactly what they need to do to prepare for education and training in their field of study, and provide targeted supports to help them achieve that. And these pathways should connect with academic and career pathways in K-12.

What It Will Take to Measurably Improve Outcomes

It is not enough to simply pass legislation or create new programs. It will take collaborative, sustained leadership to realize the vision of all students successfully transitioning to postsecondary education. K-12 and higher education leaders need to mutually commit to student success and formalize their collaboration in ways that can ensure long-term sustainability.