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June 11, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 19

Fixing the Communication Gaps Between High School and Higher Ed

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How can K–12 educators work with leaders in higher education to make the transition from high school to college or career pathways more equitable? The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, asks questions such as these in its work to eradicate barriers to equal education for low-income students and students of color. Tanji Reed Marshall, the director of P–12 practice, and Tiffany Jones, the senior director of higher education policy, talked with ASCD about the partnerships necessary to support students, particularly in a post-pandemic reality.

How would you define college and career readiness?

Tanji: Schools who are doing well are those that have few barriers to all students being able to take the kinds of course that allow them to get into college without remediation—IB courses, AP courses, having access to counselors that prepare for the kinds of courses students need to take. There are severe school funding gaps that negatively affect the kinds of opportunities students get. From an Ed Trust report, we know there's a $1,200 gap in funding for students who are in high-poverty schools and a $2,000 funding gap for schools with high numbers and percentages of students of color, netting an $8.4 million shortfall. We have to make sure teachers are dealing with their explicit and implicit biases that negatively affect students of color and students whose families are experiencing prolonged economic distress. We have to look at the environmental structures of our society that negatively affect the degrees to which funding equity is possible.
Tiffany: We're not where we need to be in higher ed for college access, in particular for low-income students and students of color. Ed Trust did a series of reports called "Broken Mirrors" and found in the majority of states that black and Latino students were underrepresented at public two- and four-year colleges [based on the state's population by race]. If people of college-going age were 20 percent of the state population, you would expect them to be about 20 percent of public higher ed students, and that wasn't the case.
The approach higher education is taking to admissions can create barriers as well. In the wake of COVID-19, many colleges and universities, including the most selective like Cornell and Harvard, have talked about how they're going to allow students to go test-optional. Students who do not submit SAT or ACT scores will not be penalized because of these unique circumstances. However, this test-optional movement isn't new and is a response to all the research that suggests the best thing test scores predict is a student's income. Some places that went test-optional, like Johns Hopkins, saw a dramatic increase in the number of low-income students once they no longer placed such a strong emphasis on standardized tests. Colleges are being forced to revolutionize their admissions processes in ways they already should have been. Hopefully, they'll hold onto some of those more inclusive practices.

Do the students you interact with see school playing a role in their vision for their future and if it's helping them achieve their goals?

Tanji: The students I've spoken with … are experiencing a disconnect between the ways in which they are learning and what they believe the world offers them. We hear things like, "I want school to teach me about life in terms of how to pay my taxes and be prepared to manage a budget." "My school keeps teaching me about Chris Columbus. Why I am hearing history in this way when there are so many other stories?" What they are seeking is more a definitive and explicit alignment between being an adult and what school continues to teach them in this kind of linear manner—that they have to sit through X number of courses and X number of tests.
Tiffany: The top challenges students in higher ed often talk about are related to the cost of college and all the burdens and challenges that come with that. The other is related to the actual environment not being inclusive and supportive, especially for issues of equity. K–12 teachers have a big leg up in that they were trained on skills for managing a classroom and how to convey their content. In higher ed, folks often report they are dealing with faculty who have no training on how to engage students and a lack of inclusive curriculum that they can relate to as low-income students or students of color. The majority of faculty are still white, even though student body has continued to diversify.

How can educators at all levels work together to support a more seamless transition?

Tiffany: States across the country at certain points have enacted what they call P–20 task forces to create more communication across early ed, K–12, and higher ed. It's symbolic, but it doesn't always result in aligning policy. Even if task forces developed some sort of standards, they did not always translate into a seamless coherent experience for the students and families. California sticks out as one state that has clear expectations for what high school students have to do to be admitted in the higher ed space, and those expectations are honored once they get there. They also tried to pair that transition with additional support while students were in college-level courses for some extra catch-up. money.
When it comes to working together, I think higher ed has a crucial role. The courses I took as a higher ed scholar taught me about college access and readiness, but my colleagues studying to become K–12 guidance counselors didn't take them. Yet, they were going to be responsible for helping students understand the higher ed system. Similarly, I had no idea what was going on in P–12 settings. There are opportunities for higher ed to take a more integrated model of how both sides work, so folks who are going to lead these systems can be more effective in leadership roles.

In what ways do you predict COVID-19 will affect students who are just graduating high school?

Tanji: It comes down to looking at the individual student and what that student needs and aspires to. On the P–12 side, guidance counselors are important to help students understand how to navigate these new systems. Are they filling out the necessary documents and FAFSA forms? Are they responding to emails and messages sent from the colleges about course registration or potential housing? Are they getting fees in if they're still necessary? For students not going into colleges, are guidance counselors positioned to help them navigate entry pathways toward a career or the military?
Tiffany: The data suggest the completion of FAFSA forms is already down, some estimating about 5 percent or about 250,000 fewer than last year. Some surveys have suggested about 15 percent of students say they're going to take some sort of pause or a gap year. One survey found that 40 percent of students of color said they won't go to college in the fall or it's just too soon to be able to know, versus 24 percent of white students.
There are a few things that colleges can do to be supportive of students who are trying to transition to higher ed. Some selective colleges use alumni interviews or campus visits to give students extra points [for admission], and those are types of things that disadvantage first-generation college students and those with fewer resources. Colleges could also waive all applications fees and deposits and ask students for updated financial information. More than 30 million people have filed for unemployment, so colleges should allow flexibility with considering students for need-based aid, even if that wasn't true three months ago. They could also be more flexible with deposit dates to hold spots—those should be reduced, waived, or deferred to later in the summer.
Once students arrive on campus, it's important that colleges have ample counseling services and grief support, especially for communities of color who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

In your work with Ed Trust's Equity in Motion initiative, why have you targeted assignment analysis as a lever for equity?

Tanji: Assignments let you know what teachers know about their standards and their content. They let you know what students can do regarding content. This is a matter of equity because if teachers do not expect students to do high-level work, the types of assessments they give will reflect that. In an Ed Trust report, we found that fewer than half of students were getting the grade-level assignments they needed to prepare them for college and careers. If teachers are not giving varied grade-level assignments, then they reduce students' ability to be able to do work that will be creative and demanding for them. The New Teacher Project's Opportunity Myths work shows students of color are more likely to get work that's below grade level. Kids know the difference and expect to be educated in line with the course they take.

Anything else to add?

Tiffany: We often ask a lot of higher ed institutions and those who staff and lead them, but we also want them to know that we are fighting hard to make sure they have the resources to be able to deliver for students. We, along with 70 other stakeholders, have called for $250 billion dollars to stabilize education funding in response to COVID-19. This country does have the resources; it's just a matter of priority. K–12 education is often protected by state constitutions from certain budget cuts, but higher ed is not. When budgets get slashed, colleges often respond by raising tuition, which is a big part of why there's a student debt crisis now. In the last stimulus bill, Congress was willing to spend 30 times more on corporate bailouts than they did on higher ed. We're advocating for policymakers to provide [educators] with the resources they need, knowing they can't do it alone.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kate Stoltzfus is a freelance editor and writer for ASCD.

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