Both of us were first-generation college students. Like many others who fit this description, we started college at broad-access postsecondary institutions close to home – a California community college and a California state university. Our privileged fates as graduates unfortunately was and remains far from the norm for others of similar backgrounds. Too many who go to college are unprepared and never finish. In fact, 65 percent of low-income youth attending two-year colleges and 32 percent at four-year colleges start in non-credit bearing developmental courses. Of all students starting in such courses, only 22 percent and 37 percent, respectively, move on successfully to the next credit-bearing course that they should have been ready for when they first entered college.

Our careers leading up to and at Jobs for the Future (JFF) have been driven by a passion to change this narrative and improve the college readiness and success of underrepresented youth. It’s a large, multi-faceted challenge without a simple solution, but we’ve recently been working with three K-12 school district-college partnerships on a targeted approach: ensuring that every high school student completes key non-remedial college courses by the time they make the transition from 12th grade into the first year of college. In this critical period, we believe that high schools and colleges can share responsibility for supporting students whom they so often both serve from the same community. This common interest could be advanced by strategies co-designed by the partners, such as new courses and support systems, and co-delivered through staff and resource sharing. These experiences for students could be co-validated by high schools as part of graduation requirements and by colleges through credit or guarantee of placement in non-remedial courses.

This idea was inspired by research on promising approaches for improving student transitions into and through college, including:

  • Dual enrollment that enables high school students to take college courses so that they develop a college-going identity and successful habits of mind through actual college experience that builds momentum toward a degree or credential;
  • Transition courses for 12th graders who test below college-ready levels;
  • College success courses to coach students in study habits, how to manage their own learning, and other strategies for meeting college expectations; and
  • Co-requisite support for first-year college students taking college-level courses who would have otherwise started in developmental coursework.

If such practices could be coalesced by local high school-college partnerships – by tailoring them to address the needs of 12th graders with varying degrees of college readiness based on an examination of data – then every high school graduate could build momentum toward a postsecondary degree or credential.

To test our hunch and ideas for implementation (see JFF’s 12th grade redesign series), we needed willing partners. We looked for school-college partners that served diverse communities and, collectively, represented a diverse set. We sought them through JFF’s K-12 and postsecondary improvement networks – a shortcut to finding institutions already engaged in some cross-sector practices and interested in doing more.

We couldn’t have found three better partners. The first is a partnership between Zane State College and Zanesville City Schools in Appalachian Ohio, serving a largely white and low-income population. A second partnership is between Lee College and Goose Creek Independent School District in suburban Houston, serving a racially diverse community of largely Latino, White, and Black students. The third partnership is between Roane State Community College and Oak Ridge Schools in the Tennessee community that housed the Manhattan Project and is undergoing demographic shifts increasing the diversity of its students.

Each district and college selected for the project was already engaged in efforts to improve college readiness and success, sometimes together and sometimes individually. One sign of their readiness to do this work – and that they had a foundational relationship — was the ability of each college and district leader to reach the other readily to discuss and commit to this joint work.  The effort has involved significant investments of time and intellectual power from school principals, superintendents, college and high school counselors, heads of curriculum and instruction, college provosts, college presidents and vice presidents, and district-college liaisons.  The partnerships also engaged state policy leaders who they felt would be interested in their work and the state conditions helping or hindering such efforts.

The partnerships have been defining 12th grade redesign goals and doing data-informed strategic planning — identifying student readiness levels and postsecondary enrollments rates — in order to set goals, benchmarks, and identify support strategies. They are developing work plans to implement partnership programming that includes piloting pathways toward college course completion for targeted groups of 12th graders that are identified as unprepared for college.

Zane State College and Zanesville City Schools have developed a pathway for seniors who did not test at college-ready levels but have 3.0 GPAs. These seniors undergo career exploration and planning and get mentoring and tutoring from college staff. During the first semester of 12th grade, they take a college success course taught by college faculty at the high school along with high school English and math courses that – when successfully completed – meet the college’s requirements for entry into credit-bearing courses. The following semester, they take college math and English courses for dual credit, co-requisite support courses, and a major-specific course on the college campus.

Though promising, this effort is nascent. Early results won’t be ready for several months, and strategic plans will take years to fully execute. However, we are already learning much about how to deepen these kinds of partnerships. We have seen the importance of using data and an inventory of existing school and college programs to transform discrete programs serving select students into a collective strategy for all students.  A principal’s leadership and involvement in co-design are crucial, being at the nexus of strategy and implementation.  Some colleges dedicate staff to work with high schools, and some districts do the same to work with colleges.  This accelerates progress and makes them more receptive and ready for our help in facilitating strategic deliberations and the advancement of work plans.

While there is much more to learn, the thoughtful work of leaders in these K-12 schools, districts and colleges suggests that local partners can find powerful ways to share responsibility for students’ transitions between them and achieve greater progress on improving college readiness and success than they would by going it alone.  This is humbling and exciting work for us as we see the possibly of more low-income, first-generation students like ourselves embark on education pathways that lead towards fulfilling and family-sustaining careers.