Every fall for the past few years, the K-12 education community has celebrated an exciting accomplishment: growing national graduation rates. In fact, data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that from the 2010-2011 school year to the 2013-2014 school year, graduation rates have increased across all subgroups, and both the black-white and Hispanic-white achievement gaps have decreased. While a significant accomplishment that is undoubtedly worth of celebration, the nation’s education community must look at data beyond high school graduation rates to understand the full picture of college and career readiness.
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) studies projections of workforce needs over the next few years, including required education levels. In 2020, CEW predicts that 65% of all jobs in the United States will require some amount of postsecondary education, up from 59% in 2010. We can celebrate high school graduation rates as an indicator of better prepared students, but this data suggests that postsecondary attainment must be considered alongside high school graduation rates to determine true preparedness for next steps.
Unfortunately, the celebrated increased high school graduation rates does not take into account the reality of students enrolling in remedial courses or student attrition in higher education. When students arrive at their postsecondary institution without the needed knowledge and skills to enroll in college-level classes, they are placed in remedial classes. While they cost the same as other credits, remedial credits do not count towards graduation requirements. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), low-income, Hispanic, and African-American students are more likely to need remediation than white students, placing a heavier financial burden on groups that traditionally must overcome greater challenges in progressing through the education system. Additionally, enrolling in remediation courses increases a student’s likelihood of dropping out of college, with debt and few credits counting towards a degree.
Remediation poses an obvious risk to a student’s ability to progress through postsecondary education in pursuit of joining the workforce. Just how serious is this risk? Using Colorado as an example, in 2005, remediation rates ranged from 22.2% for students in four-year institutions to 60.1% for students in two-year institutions. The exact percentages vary across states, but Colorado’s rates are not out of the ordinary. There is an urgent need to create better linkages between secondary and postsecondary education to resolve this remediation crisis. High school graduation rates are only one step towards college and career and must be accompanied by supports and structures that will allow for students to make the transition to higher education without needing to face the threats that come with remediation.
Remediation rates are not the only byproduct of disconnected secondary and postsecondary education systems. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), for first-time, full-time students enrolling in college in fall 2008 and seeking a bachelor’s degree, six-year graduation rates ranged from 36% at the least selective schools to 89% at the most selective schools. While this particular report from NCES did not disaggregate the data to understand differences based on race, family income, or first-generation status, trends across other data sets make it reasonable to draw the conclusion that these percentages are even lower for low-income students and students of color. Improving the connections between secondary and postsecondary education is not just about preparing students for the workforce, it is also critical to increasing equity in higher education and, eventually, the workforce.
By looking at our future workforce needs alongside the implications of high remediation rates and low six-year college graduation rates, a significant amount of work needs to be done before high school graduation rates can be an indicator for future success. In addition to programs that support first-generation college students find success in higher education, systemic and structural work needs to be done to create better alignment between high school and postsecondary education. To prepare students for future workforce needs, K-12 and postsecondary education must seek systemic alignment that creates clear pathways for students to find success in their education in pursuit of their career goals.
In our transition memo to the new Presidential Administration, Embracing the Opportunity: Recommendations for Scaling Personalized Learning Under a New Presidential Administration, we offer a set of recommendations for leveraging national momentum to create a flexible, customized education system where every learner succeeds. One of those recommendations is: “Incentivize effective transitions between K–12 and higher education to increase college enrollment and persistence.” Read the complete memo to learn more.
 United States Department of Education. 2015. U.S. Graduation Rate Hits New Record High. http://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-high-school-graduation-rate-hits-new-record-high-0
 Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl. 2013. Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020. Georgetown University, Center on Education and the Workforce. https://cew.georgetown.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Recovery2020.FR_.Web_.pdf
 National Conference of State Legislatures. Hot Topics in Higher Education: Reforming Remedial Education. Accessed December 5, 2016. http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/improving-college-completion-reforming-remedial.aspx
 Colorado Department of Higher Education. 2016. 2015 Legislative Report on Remedial Education.
 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2016. The Condition of Education 2016.