The Big Blur

An argument for erasing the boundaries between high school, college, and careers, and creating one new system that works for everyone.

At a Glance

An argument for erasing the boundaries between high school, college, and careers, and creating one new system that works for everyone.






Areas of Work
  • Ensuring Equity in Advancement
  • Meeting Employer Needs
  • Preparing for the Future of Work
Experts Involved
In progress
  • DE
  • CO
  • IL
  • MA
  • OR
  • TN
  • TX
  • WA


The Problem

It’s time to give up tinkering and instead take on a radical rethinking and restructuring of grades 11 through 14—the last two years of high school and the first two years of college—in order to increase success for all. The biggest structural barrier to increasing college completion rates and career success is the enduring and seemingly intractable disconnect between high school, higher education, and our workforce systems. They can be difficult to navigate and are misaligned, with incompatible curricula, instruction, expectations, and support services. They work better for those who are financially secure and well-connected, but not well enough for the vast majority of young people across the country.


The Solution

We believe a system that would more effectively support older adolescents’ success in college and careers and eliminates many transition barriers is feasible and has the following features:



Incentives are structured to promote new ways of organizing learning and support systems across grades 11-14. The system(s) are held accountable for defined outcomes in this period and current funding streams can be used flexibly, created as needed for systems serving students in these grades.



Systems are aligned so that at 11th grade, students enter new institutional structures incorporating high school and college requirements designed for career preparation and incorporating work experience. These structures enable students to take incremental steps on a career pathway and result in credentials with labor market value by the end of 14th grade and the ability to progress in further education.

Growth in Degree Attainment Remains Unacceptably Slow Across Racial and Ethnic Groups


A state cabinet-level team and/or empowered secretary or commissioner with decision-making authority oversees, ensures funding, and supports unified grades 11 through 14 institutional structures aligned to the state’s economic development strategy. The individual or team unifies policies promulgated by the offices of education, higher education, workforce, and economic development as they pertain to and influence the preparation of the state’s future talent pipeline. Career-focused curriculum and work experiences are aligned and seamless, and the measure of success is student short- and longer-term labor market outcomes.



Staffing structures are designed to equip specially trained educators and leaders to teach, curate, and organize learning and work experiences and support systems for students in grades 11-14.

The Outcome

The Big Blur erases the arbitrary dividing line between high school and college and opens the opportunity for all 16-year-olds to start on a path toward a postsecondary credential and preparation for a career. Two years of college are free to everyone, just like the 10 years of primary and secondary school that came before. Some may want to think of it as two years of college included in high school or two years of high school included in college. But this vision is far more revolutionary. Read more here.

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We are elevating system changes made in a handful of leading-edge states across the political spectrum. We are accelerating their impact, drawing from those experiences to map the road toward the Big Blur, and encouraging and supporting other states to do the same.

We are currently convening eight advocacy organizations in a Big Blur Policy and Advocacy Action Lab to support leading states as they work to create the policy conditions necessary to support implementation of the Big Blur and contribute to the development of a state policy framework to guide next steps in the field.

Colorado Succeeds Education Systems Center Northern Illinois University Educate Texas Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education
Oregon Business Council Partnership for Learning, Education Foundation of the Washington Roundtable Rodel, A Great Education Changes Everthing State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)

Additional engagements include:

  • Partnering with and providing strategic support to high schools and district leaders, Institutions of Higher Education, government departments, and employers as part of a Delaware Pathways & Rodel Foundation initiative. This initiative aims to refine and implement a 1+1 educational model in the three vocational-technical school districts across Delaware for students to receive one year of college credit and/or complete one year of a Registered Apprenticeship Program before they graduate from high school.
  • Partnering with IBM to support 17 P-TECH schools in the U.S. and Canada to spark bolder innovation in employer-connected college and career pathways models that can inform and facilitate systems change at scale.
  • Convening and supporting – along with other leading national organizations - a cohort of five innovative intermediary organizations and their partners in a new initiative -Launch: Equitable & Accelerated Pathways for All. This initiative aims to design next-generation pilots of strategy and policy solutions to transform and reimagine the education-to-career ecosystem.

In the Media

The ideas presented in the Big Blur continue to gain interest in the field. Learn more about what others are saying and join the conversation:


Learn more about The Big Blur and how leading practitioners, experts, and thought leaders are engaging with the ideas.

The Big Blur: Reimagining the Transitions Between Grade 11, Postsecondary, and Career

JFF Horizons 2021

JFF Associate Vice President Lexi Barrett, Associate Vice President Kyle Hartung, and Vice President Joel Vargas present JFF’s vision for a reimagined transition and welcome responses from national leaders in K-12, postsecondary, policy, and business. Respondents: Kim Hunter-Reed, Commissioner, Louisiana Board of Regents, Russell Lowery-Hart, President, Amarillo College, and Michael Matsuda, Superintendent, Anaheim CA Unified School District.

A Blurred Vision for Good

Horizons podcast

In the sixth episode of the Horizons podcast, host Tameshia Bridges Mansfield looks back at the in-depth discussion about The Big Blur from Horizons 2021.

The Big Blur: Is 2022 the Beginning of the End for the Traditional Transition From High School-to-Postsecondary-to-Work?

JFF Horizons 2022

Joel Vargas and Kyle Hartung from JFF discuss the Big Blur with panelists working at the forefront of innovations that blur lines and integrate learning and work at the local, state, and federal levels. Panelists consider what it will take to open the opportunity for all students to start on a path toward a postsecondary credential and prepare for a career. Panelists: Brent Parton, Acting Assistant Secretary, Employment and Training Administration, U.S. Department of Labor; Scott Laband, President, Colorado Succeeds; Lydia Logan, Vice President, Global Education and Workforce Development, Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM; Cate Swinburn, Co-Founder and President, YouthForce NOLA.

How Might We Reinvent Higher Education, High Schools, and the WorkForce... All Together?

The Future Trends Forum 2022

Joel Vargas and Kyle Hartung from JFF join Byran Alexander’s Future Trends Forum - a weekly discussion event that analyzes pressing issues at the crossroads of education and technology – to engage in a conversation about The Big Blur with Forum participants.

Read More

We are excited to develop and share publications that will shape an ongoing narrative about the rationale for the Big Blur and highlight the vision through case studies, policy issue briefs, and a blog series.


In version 2.0 of the Big Blur State Policy Framework —which is a living document—JFF outlines the steps states can take toward fully adopting each of the Blur’s four key components and creating a more effective system for grades 11-14.

The framework provides examples of how each of the key components of the Big Blur (incentives, alignment, governance, and staffing) evolves from a fragmented to a fully transformed state policy environment. It describes a continuum of four types of state policy environments that states currently have or will experience on the road toward a fully reimagined system of education-to-career pathways that work for all students.

As states seek to make key transformations, they move toward creating a policy environment that entirely erases the boundaries between high school, college, and careers, ultimately creating a revamped and new education system that works for all students. Readers can use the framework to assess their state and understand areas in the early stages of blurring and those that are further along.

JFF makes periodic updates to the framework to account for new insights and exemplars in policy and practice gathered from the field. We are always looking for strong examples of blurring in states and local areas. Please contact us to share your feedback and examples by emailing and including “Big Blur” in the subject line.

Speaking Engagements

Since the publication of The Big Blur paper, we have participated in speaking engagements, presentations, and keynotes for audiences of educators, employers, philanthropy, policymakers, and community-based organizations, including:

Michael and Susan Dell Foundation Harvard Strategic Data Project College in High School Alliance
Connecticut Governor’s Workforce Council Advancing CTE Without Limits Community of Practice Center for the Future of Arizona
ECMC Foundation ASU-GSV panel moderation (Career Education: Disrupting the K-16 Model for Equitable Access to Future Jobs) National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships (NACEP) Washington Policy Seminar
Ohio Excels’ Complete to Compete California Workforce Pathways Joint Advisory Committee (CWPJC) Pathways to Adult Success (PAS) conference
PIE Network Hunt-Lee Commission, North Carolina New Schools Venture Fund
Achieving the Dream K-12 Partnerships Institute Blackstone Valley Education Foundation Texas Student Success Center Council
Minnesota State Colleges and University System (MNSCU) Colorado Homegrown Talent Initiative Georgetown University Future Trends Forum
Colorado Attainment Network’s Career-Connected Education Pathways Conference The Big Thing: A Summit to Change Young Lives (Philadelphia) Policy Innovators in Education (PIE Network)'s Executive Meeting

Get in touch if you are interested in having JFF speak at your event, conference, or meeting about the Big Blur

Email Us

In the Field

We are working with our partners in the field to grow new models that manifest key elements of grade 11-14 strategies and institutions for which the Big Blur advocates. We will show how these models can create a constellation that forms a viable and stronger alternative vision for career preparation for young adults versus traditional high schools and colleges.

Stay tuned for more information.