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The 13th Year: Promising Models of Providing Equitable Access to Early College


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WRITTEN BY: JULIE LAMMERS, SVP, GOVERNMENT RELATIONS AND ADVOCACY, AMERICAN STUDENT ASSISTANCE | SEPTEMBER 16, 2021

It should come as no surprise that postsecondary education is more important than ever before. Gone are the days when a high school diploma alone would be a springboard to a stable career and a family-supporting wage. But how can we ensure that students have equitable access to quality education and training after they finish high school, especially in underserved populations?

The reality is, we have not done enough in the last few decades to change the structure of secondary schools, or really break down the silos between secondary and post-secondary education — and it’s evident that needs to change. While a high school diploma is still the norm at the end of K-12, it’s time to recognize that just because that’s what we’ve always done does not mean that’s what we need to continue to do.

One creative solution to expose students to postsecondary education is called a “thirteenth year.”  This early college model allows a student to graduate high school with both a high school diploma and significant credit toward a post-secondary credential, all while attending high school.

In a panel discussion at the ASU+GSV Summit, we heard from leaders who are working to bring post-secondary solutions like this to students across the nation: Chris Gabrieli, CEO of Empower Schools, and Julie Edmunds, Program Director for the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (UNCG).

Here are some of our biggest takeaways from the panel:

  • There are major gaps in access to post-secondary education and we need to think creatively about how we are addressing these gaps. As Chris pointed out, those who are white or not from a low-income household are more than 50% likely to earn a four-year degree after high school. For non-white or low-income students, this number drops to the 15-20% range. Acknowledging and addressing this stark inequity is the first step to remedying it.

One pivotal part of the solution is expanding access to postsecondary experiences in high school in which students can earn a two-year degree and/or credits toward a four-year college, or hands-on career training. In addition to ensuring that funding is available, there also must be a strategy to increase awareness of these options for students who might not think they have a post-high school education path available to them.

  • Marketing a “thirteenth year” to high school students isn’t necessarily a good strategy. As Julie Edmunds explained, increasing student interest in postsecondary education really starts with integrating career-oriented programs into the high school curriculum early in the education experience. By helping students and families think critically about the value of acquiring postsecondary training before a student graduates from high school, you can build a program that focuses on a long-term success objective, and not just the idea of adding another year of high school for the sake of it. After all, what student would jump at the thought of another year of high school?

From Julie’s perspective, schools that do early college programs well — particularly for those groups that are underrepresented in college — are ones that have successfully communicated the benefits of the model and have created a well-integrated system that allows for students to gain postsecondary education credit in the supportive environment of their high school.

“These are really schools that combine high school and college, so these things are happening at the same time. Students often start in ninth grade, and then have the opportunity to earn a high school diploma, and an associate degree, technical credential or two years of college credit,” she explained. “In our study, we found that these programs increased the percentage of students earning any sort of post-secondary credential by a third — and it actually tripled the percentage of students in our sample who had earned an associate degree.”

  • There are structural and policy challenges to implementing these models in high schools. The first issue when it comes to policy, Chris said, is accountability. Right now, high schools are primarily responsible for two things: standardized test scores and graduation rates. Post-secondary and career-oriented programs are often not seen as necessary because they don’t directly ladder up to those benchmarks, which can make it a more difficult sell to school districts and educators. In addition, keeping students in high school an extra year to acquire postsecondary education credit can run counter to a strict push to ensure a four-year graduation rate. This may need to be addressed so that policy is well aligned to ensure long-term student success.

In addition, the issue of post-secondary accessibility gaps between white and non-white students is not one that can be addressed by simply pushing for a high school diploma and a four-year degree for all students. Chris argued that expanding access to alternative post-secondary paths is the key to long-term success in bridging those gaps. One concrete way to accomplish this, according to Chris, is by modernizing the Federal Pell Grant and extending it to the high school level so that more students can earn postsecondary education credentials while still in high school.

  • We need to steer away from looking at education in such a segmented format, and embrace a paradigm shift. “What we need to start doing is thinking about education as a continuum, so that the funding is all in the same bucket,” Julie explained. “If we think holistically about this funding, it’s a more cost-effective way to get students to these desired outcomes.”

By creating a paradigm in which education is seen as a continuous pursuit rather than the traditional and separate K-12 and post-secondary model, we can expand the conversation around what post-secondary education can look like for a wide array of students. Julie argues we need to eliminate the split between high school and college systems so that we are envisioning a much more distinct K-14 or K-16 model of coordinated education.

  • As virtual education persists, we don’t need all post-secondary opportunities to be in-person. In addition to the monumental changes happening in moving post-secondary education courses online, COVID has spurred a lot of innovation in virtual apprenticeships and work-based learning experiences. “I think there’s tremendous opportunities in career exposure, guidance, and mentoring being done online,” Chris elaborated. “Online, there’s opportunity for what students really need.”

However, the panelists acknowledged that there are clear discrepancies in access to technology for students of different backgrounds, which is also an issue that needs to be addressed at a structural level. If students are given equitable access to the proper technology, it can remove barriers to educational opportunities while also providing a greater means to individualize work-based learning experiences for students.

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on providing equitable access to postsecondary education?

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