Adding a 13th Year to K-12 for College and Career Success

A fifth year of high school can enable students to earn an associate’s degree at no cost while beginning to blur the lines between high school, college, and career.

Published mar. 27, 2023

For high school seniors and their families, graduation is a time for celebration and an achievement of note, especially for students who are the first in their family to earn a diploma and move on to postsecondary education. Most of us are accustomed to thinking of high school as a four-year experience followed by a two- or four-year college. So when an 18-year-old says, “I’m taking a fifth year,” it’s easy to blurt out “What happened?” or simply think it.

That question, even well-meant, is loaded with subtext and judgment as to why a student might need an extra year to finish their high school graduation requirements. And more, it’s behind the times. Increasingly, students who utilize an additional year of high school supports are going to college—they’re just doing it for free while still in high school.

A fifth year of high school, or 13th-year program, enables young people to stay on their high school’s roster and therefore be eligible for K-12 educational services, all while earning postsecondary credits. Although not an entirely new concept, adding a year to the traditional four-year high school model has garnered newfound attention among policymakers and philanthropy as a key strategy for increasing postsecondary enrollment and success. At Jobs for the Future (JFF), we also see it as a sign of demand for system and policy changes that can blur our outmoded, siloed secondary and postsecondary education systems and their connection to a career.

Many of today’s 13th-year programs enable students to earn an associate’s degree at no cost. Thirteenth graders learn from high school and college instructors, exposing them to the rigors of postsecondary education while retaining the familiarity of their high school experience. Thirteenth-year programs break down the enduring and seemingly intractable disconnect between high school and college.

As early as 1974, the Middle College National Consortium (MCNC) blended a small public high school’s offerings with those of LaGuardia Community College in New York City. The goal was to place young people whose high school did not serve them well in a more adult environment—a community college—giving them a fresh start on education. MCNC supported the spread of such models across the country and grew a set of leaders for this small-scale grassroots effort.

With the emergence of the early college high school initiative in 2002, the practice of blending high school with the first years of college gained even more traction. Some of these programs were designed to allow students to earn an associate’s degree within the traditional four-year timeframe of high school, but a growing number recognized that a 13th year or 5th year of high school would increase the number of students completing at least a full year of college credit.

Almost all the newer programs established during the early 2000s came into being through a mix of philanthropic initiatives and state and district policy workarounds rather than affirmative legislation to access public funding. While many small early colleges thrived and networks of such schools grew in California, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio, states were slow to explicitly support or grow this work.

Early College High Schools

Early college high schools allow all students to earn significant college credit, and potentially an associate’s degree, by the time they graduate high school. They enable this by providing a curriculum that maximizes opportunities for dual enrollment with postsecondary education partners. Students also receive extensive academic and social support to ease the transition to college coursework. Some early colleges are beginning to offer a 13th-year option to help ensure students receive an associate’s degree after completion.

Today’s 13th-Year Programs

What’s different today is that a new generation of 13th-year approaches is supported with state funding and affirmative statewide policies. These include both small stand-alone schools and programs within larger schools. States increasingly see early college high schools and 13th-year programs as an equity strategy to increase postsecondary access and attainment. Though the number of established 13th-year programs is small, the number of states implementing pilot programs through legislation is growing. Additionally, we are seeing several states with existing early postsecondary opportunities that have the potential to evolve into a 5th-year program but are not quite there yet.

One key example is Colorado’s Accelerating Students Through Concurrent Enrollment (ASCENT) program, representing a new wave of 13th-grade models. ASCENT was created by state legislative action, providing incentives for and removing financial and regulatory barriers to 13th-year programs. The policy offers K-12 districts and higher education institutions state funds to cover college tuition—the factor that most often discourages schools from providing dual or concurrent enrollment to cover college tuition.

Louisiana policymakers took similar action in enacting the Louisiana Extension Academy pilot program to help students earn postsecondary credits, gain experience through work-based learning, and even attain an associate degree, Registered Apprenticeship, or advanced industry-based credential at no cost to students. Local education agencies (LEAs) are incentivized to participate in Extension Academies because the policy enables them to include fifth-year students in annual enrollment counts towards expenses and costs reported back to the state. Local education agencies (LEAs) are incentivized to participate in Extension Academies because the policy enables them to include fifth-year students in annual enrollment counts towards expenses and costs reported to the state.

In Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Boards of Higher Education and Elementary and Secondary Education developed a joint resolution in 2017 recognizing the importance of early college programs and their role in improving educational attainment rates across the Commonwealth, particularly for students of color and students from low-income families. The Massachusetts Alliance for Early College (MA4EC) plays an advocacy role in amplifying the state’s commitment to equitable access for all students, academic pathways that are integrated within K-12 and aligned with college and career, connections to career through work-based learning and apprenticeships, high-quality partnerships between K-12 districts and higher education institutions, and robust student supports that extends past academics.

Building upon the resolution’s guidance and with funding from the Gates Foundation’s Accelerate ED, MA4EC is piloting an “Early College Promise year” program that allows a subset of Early College participants the opportunity to defer high school graduation for one year while they take college courses and continue receiving support and guidance from both high school and college staff. The pilot program will enable participants to earn an associate degree or 60 postsecondary credits by the time they finish their 13th year.

13th-Year or 5th-Year Programs

Many 13th-year programs enable students to earn an associate degree a year after completing high school at no cost. These models allow these students to learn from high school and college instructors, exposing them to the rigors of postsecondary education while retaining the familiarity of their high school experience. Not all of today’s 13th-year programs are associated or connected with early college high schools.

Erasing the Boundaries Between High School, College, and Careers

It’s important to remember that as the number of pathways to a postsecondary credential and good career increase, we mustn’t view 13th-year programs as a lesser choice than the four-year degree approach. Instead, we should view an added year as a smart and quality choice for economic success.

The examples here of policy-driven and policy-affirmed programming are steps toward smoothing the pathway between secondary and postsecondary. Efforts like these should be expanded and scaled. At the same time, more radical policy change is required to ensure equity and fully erase the boundaries between high school, college, and careers and ensure 16–20-year-olds receive the best support they need to thrive in today’s economy. Young people also need access to robust work-based learning, career exploration, and on-the-job opportunities, in addition to earning a postsecondary occupational certification and associate degrees.

JFF’s Big Blur vision argues for a radical restructuring of education for grades 11-14—by erasing the arbitrary dividing lines between high school, college, and careers. The Big Blur makes a case for financing, governance, staffing, and other systems that create an entirely new type of institution—neither high schools nor college—designed specifically to better meet the needs of young people in grades 11 through 14, particularly historically underserved students. These institutions would start to expose youth by age 16 to the knowledge, skills, and credentials needed for careers that meet regional industry demands— and for further postsecondary education or both, all at no cost to students.

Thirteenth-year programs are a step toward the Big Blur because they, much like the Blur vision, reconceptualize what it means to be a “high school graduate” and “college student.” They make it easier and more fluid for young people to prepare for careers in a supportive, familiar environment by providing funding toward the completion of a postsecondary credential (and early career experiences in some cases) without regard for the arbitrary lines defining the traditional end of high school and start of college.

Newer 13th-year programs also leverage statewide policy to incentivize districts to consider new ways of organizing learning and support systems that align secondary and postsecondary. And in the case of Louisiana, intentionally provide young people with both access to postsecondary credits and career-relevant experiences.

JFF encourages states to continue seeking ways—through policy and systems transformation—to achieve postsecondary and career success. Policy and advocacy are strong tools to incentivize new ways of structuring learning, aligning systems, and seeking innovative ways to prepare students for postsecondary and careers. Innovators have long tinkered with existing models and come up with good ideas that have created meaningful change. Newer 13th-year models are the latest version of this, and can play a strong role in our effort to erase the arbitrary boundaries between high school, college, and career.

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The Big Blur

JFF’s ‘Big Blur' proposal calls for breaking down the boundaries between education and employment, and preparing young students for stable, sustainable careers.

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