Conspiracy of 10 Lessons and Innovations Drive Postsecondary Learning

While high levels of youth unemployment, rising college costs and mounting debt paint a dire picture of the employment landscape, things are getting better. There is a conspiracy of ten lessons and innovations that will drive improved options and outcomes for learners of all ages.

But first the bad news. Despite two decades of emphasis on college readiness, the majority of American youth leave high school unprepared for college and careers.

Most American students aren’t taking the right courses in high school. EdTrust reported that (in 2013) only four of ten students completed a course of study that makes them college eligible, and less than one in ten completes a course of study that prepares them for college and career.

Math and reading NAEP scores have been flat for 25 years with less than four of ten seniors scoring “college ready” (and since more than one in ten students drop out before taking this test, it’s fair to say that about two-thirds of U.S. students leave school unprepared for success in college). As Fordham’s Mike Petrilli said, “We’ve succeeded at motivating more young people to enroll, but we haven’t prepared more of them to succeed at it.”

college and career readiness

The cost of traditional college continues to escalate at about 3% per year. The chart from College Board below reveals that much of the cost increase is the campus arms race–fancy dorms and dining halls–while the bargain hunter will find net tuition close to flat. Great Recession state divestment made the costs of public institutions grow faster than private colleges.

Ten Positive Long-Term Trends

The good news is there are at least ten trends improving college and career preparation and lifelong learning.

1. Personalized learning. Inexpensive devices and ubiquitous broadband means most U.S. K-12 students benefit from blended environments and some level of personalized learning.

2. Deeper student-centered learning. Higher standards and tougher graduation requirements don’t necessarily translate into real readiness, but foundations and networks have been promoting learning experiences that develop critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. What started as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills in 2002 has developed broad support, renewed relevance and has been given new license in federal policy.

3. Growth mindset. Thirty years of research makes it clear that a growth mindset–an appreciation of the importance of effort and persistence–is critical for college and career success. Similarly, the ability to manage yourself, to collaborate with others and make good decisions (often called social-emotional learning) is widely recognized as key to success in life. Mindset and self-management is being taught in advisory periods, incorporated into culture and climate and integrated across the curriculum through extended challenges and project-based learning.

These broader aims of skills and dispositions are being expressed in updated high school graduate profiles (see NGLC MyWays and EdLeader21 Gallery). These aspirations also focus on making good decisions (or wayfinding), an increasingly important set of skills in school and life.

4. Access to college preparatory and dual enrollment courses. Many states, districts and networks have better aligned graduation requirements with college eligibility and are improving access to dual enrollment opportunities.

5. High school graduation rates: High school graduation rates increased from 71% in 1995 to 83% in 2015.

6. College enrollment. Despite a small dip after record recession enrollments, there is a long-term trend toward participation in postsecondary education. As the chart below shows, most of the growth in post high school participation over the last two decades came from low-income students.

The Great Recession caused a big drop in low-income enrollments between 2008 and 2012. According to an ACE report, “The rapid price increases in recent years, especially in the public college sector, may have led many students–particularly low-income students–to think that college is out of reach financially.” The decline, primarily at the community college level, is also a function of the improving job market.

Add the millions enrolled in new postsecondary options (#10) and participation in further and higher learning is exploding.

7. Focus on college completion. Leading school networks observed a decade ago that even though they were sending nearly all of their students to college, completion rates were disappointingly low. In addition to a focus on deeper learning and building persistence, they increased efforts to improve college match and supports in college (KIPP Through CollegeAspire College for Certain, Achievement First Alumni Support).

Higher education is using student data to improve support, and communication to improve completion.

8. “Show What You Know.” The world is moving toward demonstrated competence. In K-12, teachers and students are earning badges and microcredentials. Portfolios are increasingly used to share artifacts of learning. Profiles, resumes and references verify work experiences.

New degree programs like WGU, College for America and Georgia Tech’s Master´s in Computer Science signal a show what you know future.

Microcredentials are becoming more common on LinkedIn, and most come from technology companies. Coursera, at #2 in the graphic below, and EdX, at #18, are the only “academic institutions” on the list.

9. Decision support services & tools. Good high schools have an advisory system that includes guidance, culture building activities and links to student supports. More than 50 college access and success organizations are making an impact.

Information systems that support high school scheduling, guidance and advisory systems are enabling better postsecondary choices.

10. Rise of lifelong learning. The most important “exit slip” upon high school graduation isn’t the symbolic diploma students are handed as they walk across the stage, but the combination of a college-ready transcript, a work-ready resume and a portfolio of artifacts that demonstrate competence.

About 58 million people took free online courses last year. Here’s a recap of the top 10 classes in 2016:

Add career and technical options, code schools, open education resources and educational apps and there’s an explosion of lifelong learning opportunities.

The economy demands more postsecondary learning. While recent, these 10 trends are improving preparation for and access to postsecondary and lifelong learning

Formal degree programs are holding their own but the real growth (where it’s really hard to track) is in informal learning where anywhere access to free and high-quality content is growing exponentially.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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