By Michael Dannenberg and Anne Hyslop (originally published in the April 2019 issue of AC&E)
Homecoming. Prom. Commencement. For generations of Americans, senior year of high school has been a rite of passage.
But senior year also brings senioritis and that itching feeling for what comes next—a feeling exacerbated for the roughly one in four high school juniors who are academically ready for college-level work before 12th grade begins, according to ACT data.
The existing model of four years of high school and four years of college is system-focused instead of student-driven. Rethinking how we, as an American educational system, approach 12th grade could give these estimated 850,000 college-ready students a leg up on their academic career—while also freeing up resources to support those who are behind. It could help solve one of the most vexing problems facing students as they transition to and through higher education: skyrocketing college costs and student loan debt.
Instead of the traditional 12th grade year, what if at the end of 11thgrade, students who demonstrate college readiness had meaningful options to enroll in college-level coursework, full-time—and what if public funding encouraged this choice?
These “Fast Track” pathways for students would make high school better and the journey to a college degree faster and cheaper.
We envision a primary pathway that would give high school juniors who are academically ready the opportunity to take a full-time sequence of college-level courses in 12th grade—with a crucial guarantee that if they pass the sequence, it would transfer into useable college credit at any public college or university statewide. Students who choose this pathway would still spend four years in high school, but they would start college ahead of the game—giving them the option of graduating from college early and saving them (and taxpayers) on college costs.
A second, more out-of-the-box alternative pathway would allow eligible students to graduate from high school a year early, with the reward of a scholarship to attend any in-state public college—funded by taxpayer money saved when they spend three years in high school instead of four. This pathway could provide much-needed scholarship funds to students, particularly since 30 percent of the students we estimate would be eligible for a Fast Track pathway come from low-income families, again according to ACT data.
This multi-path, Fast Track system is closer to reality than one might think, because it would build on programming that already exists in many states.
Currently, millions of students take Advanced Placement (AP) and dual enrollment classes. But some 40 percent of AP course-taking does not result in college credit, and more than 40 percent of dual enrollment and regular college course credits are lost when students attempt to transfer, according to College Board and the Government Accountability Office.
States should ensure that all public colleges accept credits for all introductory-level, early postsecondary coursework taken by high school graduates—like AP and dual enrollment—that meets minimum performance standards. Moreover, these credits should transfer toward degree requirements, not mere elective credits.
Some states have taken steps in this direction. Twenty states already have policies requiring public colleges to accept AP exam results for credit. Florida has a model statewide credit transfer policy whereby an associate degree transfers into two years of credit at all public four-year colleges statewide. AP Biology and Bio 101 at Miami Dade Community College are not substantively different from Bio 101 at Florida State.
States should also expand the availability of early college coursework, including quality on-line options, so a Fast Track pathway can exist at all schools—even rural schools with limited access to in-person AP or dual enrollment options—so that all eligible students can fast track to college, free-of-charge.
The building blocks for the second Fast Track pathway are also already in place. For example, in Indiana the Mitch Daniels Early High School Graduation Scholarship helps students get an advance start on higher education, along with a $4,000 scholarship they can put toward school. Other states should go even bigger on the scholarship front.
A student-driven approach to the transition from high school to higher education not only benefits students, but also states and taxpayers.
States would also generate savings to re-invest in college readiness efforts from the main Fast Track pathway when students graduate college in three or four years, instead of the typical five or six—an estimated $1.8 billion annually in savings if only a quarter of eligible fast track students participate.
And for every high school junior who chooses to graduate high school early, a state could reallocate an average of $11,000 per student—or the amount that would have been spent on a student’s 12th grade education. If only 10 percent of eligible high school juniors participate, nearly $1 billion could be saved each year and reinvested in early college scholarships and improved high school programs for everyone.
New Fast Track pathways will not solve the college affordability problem, but they can make a significant difference financially—and academically—for hundreds of thousands of students.
Let’s make the senior of high school one that counts for everyone—students, teachers, and taxpayers alike—by rethinking 12thgrade in a way that meets the needs of every student and helps them excel, thrive, and succeed as soon as they’re ready. They shouldn’t have to wait.
Michael Dannenberg is Director of Strategic Initiatives for Policy at Education Reform Now, a nonprofit, education progressive advocacy group. Anne Hyslop is Assistant Director of Policy Development & Government Relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a non-profit policy and advocacy group focused on high school improvement.