The pipeline to and into the start of education after high school is full of leaks.
Post-secondary education works for some teenagers, but not enough of them. And one could argue given the cost of what is essentially the only post-high school path into a “good job” that we have carved out in the U.S.—college—that it is broken for more than we care to admit.
This problem only worsened during the pandemic. Just consider these three stats:
Public schools in the U.S. lost more than 1.4 million students in the last three years. While many of them moved to charter schools, private schools, or homeschooling, some left altogether lured in by jobs at Walmart or McDonald’s that paid $15+/hour. “They’re becoming the breadwinner for their family,” one former college president recently told me.
The percentage of teenagers going on to college three months after high-school graduation has dropped to its lowest level in more than a decade (see below). Some 4 in 10 high-school graduates are forgoing college altogether, at least immediately.
We’re losing about a quarter of students after their first year of college.In the fall of 2021, about 66% of students returned to the campus they started at in the fall of 2020. Add to that 8.6% of students who transferred to another college and you have a “persistence rate” of 75%. Research shows that if students stop out, or take a leave of absence, they may not continue with their studies. That’s particularly true for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
So how might we fix this leaky pipeline?
It’s a question I’ve been asking in recent weeks of labor-market experts, college leaders, high-school counselors, as well as other policymakers. And there are plenty of good ideas—many already underway—to improve the pathway at three critical moments: in high school, in the transition to college, and in the first year of college.
High school. At the high school level, students are leaving early for jobs because of current wage inflation in low-skill jobs. That might change if the labor market tightens, but new wage levels might already be baked into many of these jobs. In some ways the model that has taken off in higher ed, where colleges and employers work together through an intermediary such as Guild Education or InStride to match workers with colleges using the companies’ tuition benefits, needs to reach down into K-12 so the workers who left high-school early can earn their diploma on the job.
Students can watch course content on the Study Hall channel on YouTube for free. If they want to take the entire course through ASU, it’s $25. To receive credit from ASU that could then transfer to other colleges, students pay $400. (Disclosure: I’m a special advisor at ASU.)
This is not only a way for students to “try” college at a low cost, it’s also a way for high school students to get a head start on college. In addition, there are short videos about preparing for college and guides for different college majors at any college—not just ASU.
The first-year of college. In my conversations there seems to be widespread agreement that the first-year of college needs a major overhaul.
One idea gaining traction— discussed during a “Next Office Hour” and a “LinkedIn Live” I hosted this month— is to embed certificates, badges, and certifications in college courses, particularly in that critical first year. This way, if students do leave college, they have something more than just a collection of credits and perhaps debt.
“One worry I hear is that if we give them certifications they might leave us,” Mark Milliron, president of National University, said during our LinkedIn Live. “We discovered that if they get a cert, they are twice as likely to get a degree. Getting a certification gives them academic momentum.”
In the Alamo Colleges District in Texas, some 100 courses have built-in badges that are proof students have a specific marketable skill, such as oral communication, written communication, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking.
The San Antonio college also offers Google’s certificates to students pursuing degrees. The tech company is making a bigger push into higher ed by partnering with colleges to offer credentials in high-growth fields. (The Alamo Colleges District spent more than 18 months researching the micro-credential market before embarking on this strategy and published this helpful series of studies of what they found.)
“The real key around around incremental credentials is that it’s that first taste, that foot in the door, that hooks students and keeps them coming back because it doesn’t feel overwhelming or daunting if you can come in and do something small,” Kristi Wold-McCormick, assistant vice provost and university registrar at the University of Colorado at Boulder said during the Next Office Hour.
Embedding badges and certifications in the traditional degree also makes the first year of college more relevant to students. In traditional high ed, students might study a concept in the fourth week of a semester, but not use it until two semesters later, by which time they probably have forgotten what they learned. Or students have no idea how a theory is applied in the outside world as they are learning about it, so they quickly lose interest.
Such embedded certifications are not replacements for a college degree. But at least if a student leaves early they have some marketable skills and perhaps some motivation in whatever job they hold to go back to college.
Yes, this means students “swirl” rather than take a straight path and it never works as well in practice as it seems to in theory. The average student at ASU Online, for instance, comes with transcripts from three different institutions, which illustrates just how much students move around before getting any sort of credential with currency in the job market.
But the education ecosystem is improving with many new providers, often outside traditional higher ed. This “New Learning Economy” that I describe in a recent white paper holds some promise of fixing leaks in the educational pipeline as long as we have quality controls in place and disseminate better data about outcomes. One thing is clear: to meet the skill demands of the near future, we can’t afford to keep watching as millions of young adults get off the path to further education.
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🚨 MARK YOUR CALENDAR: February’s “Next Office Hour” will be on Tuesday, February 21 at 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT.
On this webcast we’ll explore how to better bridge the gap between education and work by looking at the role of “micro-internships,” wrap-around services such as childcare and career coaching, and improved transfer pathways.
Join us for an interactive conversation to learn from practitioners already doing this work:
Jeffrey Moss, founder and CEO, Parker Dewey, which offers micro-internships by connecting students and companies
Lauren Trent, CEO, AdvanceEDU, which partners with universities to give working students affordable and flexible learning options
Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College
►Register for free here. (Support from Charles Koch Foundation)
✋ I’m looking for help on an article I’m working on about deferrals from colleges that are inundated with applications. If you’re a student, parent, or counselor seeing a lot of deferrals from colleges right now (or if this happened last year to you, I’d like to hear the ultimate outcome), please reach out by replying to this email. I’ll be in touch with those I might want to talk with further.
Re-engaging Students After Covid
A lecture at the University of Texas at Austin.
The first wave of students who experienced pandemic learning in high school are now in college.
And from the anecdotal reports we’re getting from faculty members, they are struggling to catch up and many of them are tentative and anxious.
1️⃣ Introduce “desirable difficulties” into the classroom.
This theory by Robert Bjork finds that introducing additional hurdles during the learning or studying process can greatly improve long-term retention. Instead, Sarma told us: “We burden education with all sorts of undesirable difficulties. We’re stuck in a loop. We give lectures, and then we grade students and say, ‘Oh, they didn’t pay attention to the lectures.’”
2️⃣ Space out learning to allow for more reflection and retention. Slowing things down also allows students to deal with stress.
When Sarma told us this I was reminded of a recent tweet by Robert Talbert, a math professor at Grand Valley State University. He switched up his classes so that there’s one week of onboarding, followed by 12 weeks of teaching content, and then the last two weeks are just catch-up and reassessment. No new content.
3️⃣ Integrate the humanities. As students flee the humanities for what they see as more lucrative majors in STEM fields, they have lost what Sarma called the “connective tissue” that allows them to discover new ideas by understanding literature, history, ethics, and art.
The way the curriculum is delivered on too many campuses now, Sarma told us, “it’s like we ask people to come to a Michelin restaurant and we say, ‘Here’s some pepper, here’s some sugar, here’s some wheat. Trust us, if you cooked it all, it’d make a great meal. But this is how we’ll serve it to you.’”
Former Tennessee Senator and U.S. Education Secretary Lamar Alexander was known to frequently hold up the lengthy FAFSA application (short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid) in his efforts to simplify the form.
“When he first was elected…I went to see him and I said, ‘Have you ever seen a FAFSA?’ And he said, ‘No, I haven’t. I’d like to see one.’ And I unfurled all that multi, multi-page document, and gosh, it got his attention. He was aghast. He said, “Bill, I’m going to do something about that.” And he did. But it wasn’t easy.”
The college admissions process can be overwhelming. Knowing which schools to consider and why, or whether they are a “financial fit,” is a lot to consider — and this is just the beginning of the process. Download free guides on navigating the process.
👷♀️ See Workers as Workers, Not as a College Credential. An editorial in the New York Times supports governors who have removed degree mandates for state jobs. “Making college more affordable is important,” it said, “but there are other keys to the doors of opportunity as well,” especially for the more than 62 percent of adult Americans who lack bachelor’s degrees. Be sure to read the comments from readers. As one said “I do find it a bit hypocritical coming from one of the most elitist institutions in America.” (New York Times)
🚚 People Moving South. Will Students Be Next? “Last year, the South outgrew other U.S. regions by well over 1 million people through births outpacing deaths and domestic and international migration, according to population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Northeast and Midwest lost residents, and the West grew by an anemic 153,000 people, primarily because a large number of residents left for a different U.S. region.” This reminds me of a story from Town & Country(subscription required) a few months ago about the rising popularity of Southern colleges. (AP)
👀 What’s the Matter with Men? “They’re floundering at school and in the workplace. Some conservatives blame a crisis of masculinity, but the problems—and their solutions—are far more complex.” (The New Yorker)