We Need to Repair the Leaking Education Pipeline


The answer to growing a postsecondary trained workforce is making pathways between high schools, community colleges, and universities clear and seamless.

By David Altstadt

A growing number of high school students take dual-credit courses to get a head start on college. Meanwhile, the goal of the vast majority of community college students is to transfer to a university and earn a bachelor’s degree. But the pathway from one institution to the next is rarely as seamless as it should be. 

Too often, students waste time and money by taking courses that receiving institutions don’t count toward their program requirements. Some high school and community college students never even make the transition, foregoing their dream of an advanced degree. 

A white paper series released by JFF explores a range of policy solutions for making college pathways more seamless and supportive for students. The series touches on curricular mapping, shared services, statewide goals, and financial aid redesign.

Strengthening Pathways toward Postsecondary Success

More from the State Policy Paper Series

Learn More

The papers’ topics were influenced by JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust for Student Success. Trust members—two dozen postsecondary leaders—believe that emphasizing money, metrics, and systems integration will lead policymakers to effectively catalyze change within institutions and across systems and produce equitable increases in credential attainment. The Trust’s goal is guiding how state and federal policy can help institutions implement and scale evidence-based, student success reforms.

Policies Can Stimulate Cross-Sector Collaboration 

The challenge JFF posed in this series is to find the right points of leverage in policy without unduly encroaching on the academic purview of institutional practitioners. To strike the right balance, one paper, Effective Pathways Depend on Collaboration, examines how states could foster greater collaboration between K–12, community colleges, and four-year institutions. 

The paper explores ways that states can use high-level directives to convene practitioners from these education sectors and develop statewide or regional curriculum maps and standards for each degree program. By encouraging this kind of joint-system approach, states could also direct these practitioners to review labor market needs and high-demand skills when crafting the maps and standards.

Mapping paths is a herculean effort,  but the investment will pay dividends in the long run. Students will have a clearer understanding of courses to take to achieve their educational goals, cutting down on excess credit accumulation, time to degree, and student debt. High schools will be in a better position to advise students on their best dual-enrollment options so that all their credits are counted  when they continue to college. The same would be true for community college students who want to transfer to a four-year institution.

States should consider redesigning financial aid programs, so that the aid follows the student, not the college.

Another white paper, Measuring What Matters, points out that states could establish shared metrics of accountability to stimulate stronger partnerships across education sectors. Statewide targets for attainment, transfer, and economic mobility rely on the involvement of the entire education ecosystem. These metrics could encourage K-12, community colleges, universities, and other partners to work more closely together on pathways designs and student supports.

New Approaches to Higher Education Funding 

Two other papers in the series explore how policymakers can spur greater alignment across systems by the way they fund institutions and award financial aid.

Financing Pathways for Students and Community Colleges  asserts that dedicated fund streams must be created for essential pathway functions, like recruitment, transfer, and job placement, which are shared across multiple institutions. Typically, these functions lack both a funding source and an “owner” because no one party is wholly responsible for their delivery. 

States should consider how to deploy a dedicated stream of resources for these shared responsibilities. This would enhance how various types of education and workforce institutions and organizations deliver services, as well as encourage stronger partnerships and coordination to ensure students are best served. 

Meanwhile, Supporting Students Along their Pathways  points to how the disbursement of financial aid through colleges can create obstacles for students who are interested in moving from one institution to another to advance their education pursuits. Decoupling aid from the admissions process and instead awarding aid directly to students, like California has done,  has other benefits. It would open up more avenues and partnerships among K–12, community colleges, universities, and community organizations. This would help reach greater numbers of prospective students to inform their education decisions.

States can be proactive by using income tax data and state longitudinal data systems to identify aid-eligible individuals, including opportunity youth and adult returners. With this information, these students can be contacted well before they apply to college and provided with more tailored information about their eligibility for aid.


Recommendations for Education Alignment

To ease the barriers and burden on students so they can realize their education goals, the white paper series offers these recommendations to state policymakers.

  1. Set clear directives and deadlines for practitioners to co-develop pathways and guideposts for students to improve transfer and articulation.
  2. Adopt shared forms of accountability around attainment, transfer, and economic mobility.
  3. Fund shared services.
  4. Define and allocate state aid with the student as the primary beneficiary, not the institution. 

The papers explore each of these recommendations at length and offers real-life examples. Please take a look and share your reactions on social media at #JFFPostsecondary