Restructure the U.S. Department of Education for Strong College Transitions

Published mar. 15, 2021

College in high school programs are highly effective in helping young people—especially those from low-income and other underrepresented backgrounds—transition smoothly to postsecondary education and the workforce, and their popularity is growing nationwide. Yet these innovative models, which include dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, early college high schools, and high-quality technical programs leading to a postsecondary credential, face bureaucratic barriers that must be eradicated so they can benefit millions more students nationwide.

JFF and the College in High School Alliance Steering Committee call on the Biden administration to create a transformative new approach to the work of the multiple federal offices that oversee these critical student transitions but often fail to coordinate effectively. Our young people deserve a transparent, comprehensive, and collaborative framework—housed within the U.S. Department of Education—that helps guide them from high school through community college, four-year institutions, and careers.

Our young people deserve a transparent, comprehensive, and collaborative framework. . . that helps guide them from high school through community college, four-year institutions, and careers

Clear and consistent evidence shows that college in high school programs, in which high school students take credit-bearing college courses—typically for free—are a valuable investment: They increase the likelihood of students completing a postsecondary degree on time or early, and they have disproportionate, positive impacts on low-income and underrepresented students. Early college high schools, which enable young people to earn an associate degree or up to two years of transferable college credits by high school graduation, have a 15 to 1 return on investment.

Despite their strong track record, college in high school programs have struggled to expand at scale because the K-12, higher education, and workforce systems that provide oversight and coordination each operate, for the most part, independently. Attempts to improve collaboration have helped, but many barriers remain, including a lack of coordination in college course access, program quality, credit transfer, financing, instructor capacity, navigational supports, goal setting, and public reporting of results.

The start of a new administration is an ideal time for the federal government and the Department of Education to rethink the oversight and coordination of college in high school programs—and of the broader goal of improving high school to college transitions generally. We believe strong partnerships and structural supports for all transition-related offices and policies are essential.

Despite their strong track record, college in high school programs have struggled to expand at scale.

An optimal governance system would provide transition services to all learners moving into a postsecondary pathway, including students coming from adult education and youth programs funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. It would invest in, and create incentives for the development of, innovative approaches, and make it easier for constituents to navigate the department’s resources and policies, especially when guidance or regulations are conflicting.

We recommend the Biden administration take one of the three steps outlined below as a starting point for addressing these issues. We believe the first would be the most transformative—and we urge strong consideration of this approach. The second option is another strong alternative, but it would not have as much impact as the first. The third option would yield benefits, but not as many as the other two.

Here are three courses of action we propose:

  1. Create an office of postsecondary transitions within the Department of Education that would be responsible for oversight, departmental coordination, and constituent outreach for college in high school programs. This office should also actively implement, support, and expand policies related to high school to college transition initiatives, and it should serve as a liaison to offices in relevant federal agencies, such as the Department of Labor. It could also provide guidance to other offices within the Department of Education on issuing grants that affect postsecondary transition programs.
  2. Create a Department of Education initiative focused on coordinating postsecondary transition programs and policies across the department’s existing offices. This initiative should focus on developing a comprehensive federal policy framework for college in high school programs, emphasize the need for stronger connections and collaboration between secondary and postsecondary education, and provide services that better meet the varied needs of today’s students.
  3. Designate a point person in the Department of Education to focus explicitly on college in high school programs. The department currently has no consistent point of contact for young adults between the ages 16 and 24 as they transition from high school to college and the workforce. A designated point person focused on these issues would help constituents obtain information and support related to college in high school programs.

Our organizations look forward to working with the department’s leaders and the entire Biden administration to build an education system that supports students in their current programs—and helps increase the number of people who attain the postsecondary skills, credentials, and work experiences they need to launch family-supporting careers.