College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

What Will It Take to Get High School Students Back on Track? 

3 strategies to boost graduation and postsecondary success
By Robert Balfanz — August 18, 2021 5 min read
Conceptual illustration of students making choices based on guidance.
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After a year and a half unlike any other, high school students are struggling. The pandemic has thrown far too many off the path to high school graduation and college or career training.

In Baltimore, 68 percent of 9th graders failed a class this year, a sharp increase after years of progress. In Los Angeles, 43 percent of the class of 2022 is at risk of not graduating. And across the country, absences are up while college financial-aid applications, dual enrollment, and other key steps toward graduation and college enrollment are down. A recent poll by the America’s Promise Alliance found that nearly 80 percent of high school juniors and seniors say the coronavirus pandemic has affected their plans after graduation, including 16 percent who said they would put off attending college and 7 percent no longer planning to attend college.

While labor shortages have created short-term employment opportunities for teenagers, the service jobs they are taking do not provide a pathway to jobs that offer a long-term living wage that can support a family. The data are clear; the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has shown that all good jobs, which they define as paying 25- to 44-year-olds at least $35,000 a year, require a high school diploma, and 75 percent of those jobs require postsecondary schooling or training.

If our public education system does not adjust to the impacts of the pandemic and provide all students a pathway to adult success, not only will students and families suffer, so will communities and the nation.

Fortunately, there are a set of proven strategies developed over the past decade that can be expanded and adapted to keep students on the path to high school graduation and postsecondary success.

Schools should start by implementing early-warning systems, providing comprehensive college and career guidance, and partnering with AmeriCorps and its nonprofit partners to increase access to tutors, success coaches, and postsecondary advisers.

Let’s take these strategies one by one:

1. Early-warning systems. Before they can begin to address students’ needs, schools need to identify what they are. Which students have high odds of not graduating? What strategies can get them back on track? And how do we know they are working? Early-warning systems take the guesswork out by monitoring data that are predictive of student success, including grades and absences, and then helping educators intervene when students fall off course.

Prior to the pandemic, districts of all sizes were learning how to extend early-warning systems beyond high school graduation to college and career readiness by monitoring and seeking to increase access to and success in advanced classes, completing financial-aid forms, and making informed college and training choices. It is time to move these practices from the cutting edge to common practice.

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But the pandemic pushes us to go one step further. It has shown how strongly social-emotional well-being influences school success. Research supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that being connected to school is as close as we have to a universal prevention measure. School connectedness is driven by four experiences, all of which are measurable, can be tracked with early-warning systems, and are within schools’ capacity to improve. Students must believe that there is an adult in the school who knows and cares about them as a person, have a supportive peer group, engage in meaningful activities that help others, and feel that the school welcomes them for who they are. These are all connections that were undermined by a year or more of remote schooling and need to be rebuilt. Early-warning systems that incorporate social-emotional data can help.

2. College and career guidance. Providing students with access to comprehensive college and career guidance is also critical to education recovery. The decline in financial-aid applications and college enrollment among low-income students last fall was attributable partly to the shortage of guidance counseling, already dire prepandemic and only exacerbated by virtual learning conditions. With so many students off-track for graduation, they will need this guidance more than ever in the years to come.

This cannot be limited to interactions between high school students and guidance counselors. In fact, it shouldn’t be; even using federal relief dollars for a short-term surge of additional counselors won’t be enough for high schools that have counseling ratios greater than 1-to-500 students.

More and more school districts are partnering with community and nonprofit partners to make college and career counseling broadly available. It is time to scale up practices like those developed in Tacoma, Wash. Prior to the pandemic, nonprofits there worked with local universities and school districts. During the crisis, they created a tracking and support system to help every senior have a postsecondary placement.

3. Partner with AmeriCorps and its nonprofit partners. After more than a year of virtual instruction, we also know that many students are yearning for personal connection and attention. A strong relationship with a mentor, tutor, or success coach can be the difference between a student dropping out or graduating with a clear plan for life after high school. Here, too, local examples show possible paths forward.

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Peer Power, a Memphis-based nonprofit organization, pairs 9th graders in local high schools with college students who serve as “success coaches” working within the schools to provide relationship-driven tutoring and mentoring. Young adults doing a year of national service through AmeriCorps are working with organizations like City Year and College Advising Corps to do similar work across the country, and the American Rescue Plan provided additional funding for AmeriCorps to expand its reach to do just this type of work. School districts should create or expand partnerships with organizations using AmeriCorps members to ensure all students who need a tutor, success coach, or mentor can get one.

Districts and nonprofit partners across the nation—many of them members of Pathways to Adult Success, a national collaborative organized by the Everyone Graduates Center I direct—bring together locales supporting students to learn from each other. They have shown that early-warning systems combined with relationship-centered academic and social-emotional support, advising, and guidance improve student success. And, thanks to the rescue plan’s historic investment in education, districtwide implementation of these strategies is more feasible than ever.

We can look back on this moment as the point in which young people fell permanently off-track or as the catalyst for finally creating pathways on which all students are empowered to graduate from high school, enroll in postsecondary education, and attain a good job. The choice is ours.

A version of this article appeared in the August 25, 2021 edition of Education Week

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