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Rethinking Curriculum: Why Postsecondary Planning Can’t Wait Until 12th Grade

When students spend time in class learning about postsecondary options and applications, they’re able to make more informed choices about their futures.

By Reid Higginson, Director of Policy Research at College Access: Research & Action (CARA)

We are thrilled to have the work of Mississippi’s unique College & Career Readiness class highlighted in this national article written by College Access: Research & Action. Connecting students with Mississippi-specific jobs and which in-state colleges offer those majors can be found with our Mississippi Top Jobs Explorer Tool. Additionally, FREE ready-to-use lesson plans are available to support career exploration, college search, financial aid, and personal finance instruction. Check out the Master Teacher of College & Career Readiness course, which provides CCR teachers with extensive content knowledge, a ready-to-use course, 7.5 CEUs, and a 942 College and Career Readiness endorsement. The next cohort will be June 3- July 26; the registration deadline is May 24.

A growing body of research finds that students are not receiving adequate preparation for the postsecondary planning process. Far too many students from low-income and first-generation backgrounds are leading “constrained college searches,” where they fail to look at or apply to a robust range of postsecondary options that match their abilities and interests. Other students complete this initial step but then fail to follow through on the necessary paperwork for admission or financial aid.

Rethinking the high school curriculum can change this: when students spend time in class learning about postsecondary options and applications, they’re able to make more informed choices about their futures. Not only does this lead to increased college enrollment, it also improves postsecondary persistence and results in higher earnings, especially for students from low-income backgrounds who often lack access to this information, both in and out of school.

Despite its value, explicit class time dedicated to postsecondary exploration and applications remains far too uncommon. Or, when postsecondary instruction does exist, it is often housed in tracks that do not reach all students, conducted outside the school building or school day by an external organization, or doesn’t start until 11th or 12th grade, after key decisions and developmental processes, like building social capital and a postsecondary-going identity, have already begun.

What students need for postsecondary exploration

In CARA’s experience working with over 60 high schools across the country, we’ve found that  informed, holistic, and successful postsecondary exploration requires instruction and support for first-gen students in four key areas, in increasing time and intensity:

  • The range of postsecondary options in the United States. There’s a bewildering array of options after high school, from career preparation programs to thousands of colleges and universities. Yet many students are unaware of the wide range of options that may be good matches for them.
  • The nature of jobs and careers and the paths that lead to them. While aspiring to fulfilling careers, first-generation students often have little exposure to a variety of professional fields and the multiple roles within them. Students need exposure to different professions, opportunities to explore how their interests and talents align with them, and knowledge of how to enter those fields through different majors and training programs.
  • The postsecondary application process. Postsecondary applications are complex and multifaceted. To have the same opportunities as their peers from more privileged backgrounds, first-generation students deserve to learn early on what institutions will be asking about in relation to their high school performance (transcripts, recommendation letters, extracurriculars) and what they will be asked to produce during the application process itself (essays, applications, transcripts, fees, and test scores).
  • The costs of postsecondary pathways and the financial aid available to pay for them. Too many students either cross off options because they believe they can’t afford them OR don’t take finances into account at all. Research shows that while these students may apply and be accepted to college, they are less likely to matriculate and graduate.

Where high schools can find time for postsecondary preparation

As described in the first post in this series, striving for equity means the above information and support should be available for all students within the structures of the school day. This means viewing it as an essential instructional area, with dedicated class time in grades 9-12. Creating time for this, however, can be a challenge: with staff and instructional time already spread thin, educators wonder how anything else can fit in the school schedule.

However, in the schools we’ve worked in, we’ve found there are a range of creative ways to include these areas in a school’s schedule. Postsecondary instruction can be embedded in:

  • Advisory classes
  • Dedicated postsecondary classes
  • Core subject area or CTE classes
  • Special event days.

As seen in the chart below, each of these four options has pros and cons. What’s most important is that schools choose what fits their own structures, needs, and staff capacity.