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States Look to Strengthen College in High School Programs Amid COVID-19

In a rapidly reimagined virtual workshop, officials from five states work on ways to strengthen college in high school programs, which will have an important role to play in a post-COVID-19 world.

May 8, 2020

At a Glance

In a rapidly reimagined virtual workshop, officials from five states work on ways to strengthen college in high school programs, which will have an important role to play in a post-COVID-19 world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to switch to distance learning, educators across the country had to grapple with the challenge of finding ways to ensure that high school students stayed on track for college despite the disruption. College in high school programs—such as dual enrollment, concurrent enrollment, and early college high school—may hold the answer. Research shows that these types of programs are an important bridge between high school and college for many students. But access to these programs is often inequitably distributed.

Governors across the country are showing increased interest in expanding access to college in high school programs for their constituents. That groundswell of interest led the College in High School Alliance (CHSA), of which JFF is a steering committee member, and the National Governors Association (NGA) to join forces in an effort to bring together a cohort of states to advance college in high school initiatives by providing content expertise and policy support.

The two groups had planned to hold a workshop in late March at which officials from five states—Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Nevada—would examine their policies on college in high school programs. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted plans for an in-person meeting, the organizations quickly pivoted and turned the workshop into a two-day virtual event. Meeting remotely, the state teams worked with content area experts to find ways to better support student access to and success in college in high school programs, with a particular emphasis on closing equity gaps and improving quality.

The pandemic will have long-term consequences across our education systems through its impact on teaching and learning and access to advanced learning opportunities like college in high school programs.

The state teams were made up of representatives from the governor’s office and officials from K-12 and higher education systems. Having representatives across a wide span of education and government showed the support these programs have and the commitment to work together to make progress on implementing effective policy.

During the workshop, members of the CHSA steering committee, NGA personnel, and other partners provided facilitation support to participants during individual state team meetings, cross-state roundtable discussions, and close examination of the elements of the CHSA’s framework on state policy for college in high school programs.

Here’s a look at five key takeaways from the workshop that the NGA, the CHSA, and JFF identified.

1. Virtual Convenings Can Help State Teams Move Policy Forward

Participants appreciated the opportunity to connect virtually at a time when in-person interactions were impossible. They also expressed appreciation for the opportunity to collaborate with other state teams. Despite the need to shift to a fully virtual meeting in less than two weeks, our facilitators said they were able to successfully work with the teams to identify ways to move college in high school policy forward in participating states, including opportunities to improve student eligibility policies and develop cross-state dual enrollment task forces.

2. COVID-19 Will Impact Near- and Long-Term Plans

Every participating state team expressed concern about the impact the COVID-19 crisis would have on college in high school programs. Their concerns centered on prolonged closures of schools and colleges and declining state revenues. Many states have issued near-term guidance responding to the pandemic in the context of college in high school programs.

State leaders discussed how they might change their program eligibility criteria in the short term, particularly when eligibility typically is based on standardized tests and college entrance exams like the ACT that will not be taking place during the pandemic. Some states are interested in exploring the use of multiple measures for assessing college readiness, both as a way to address short-term needs and as a long-term equity strategy. Eligibility models that include multiple measures take a wide range of criteria into account when assessing student readiness, including grade level, attendance record, GPA, and teacher recommendations.

States also discussed longer-term implications and how projected budget shortfalls will affect their plans to expand equity and improve the quality of college in high school programs. As a result, there was significant discussion about ways in which states could advance their equity and quality agendas for these programs without significant budget increases.

3. Equity and Quality Are More Important Than Ever Before

In light of the pandemic, states agreed that efforts to expand equity and improve quality are more important now than ever before. As state teams considered their next steps, one constant theme was how to examine what data the state has access to and then determine how to use that data to inform policymaking for college in high school programs. State data systems may track which types of students are participating in college in high school programs (based on factors such as the student’s age, race or ethnicity, grade, and geographic location), where participants access the programs (i.e., at their own high schools, at another school, on a college campus, or online), and whether college in high school students are enrolling in, persisting in, and completing two- or four-year degree programs after completing high school.

States agreed that creating equity and quality for college in high school programs is more important than ever.

4. A Supportive Governor Is a Significant Asset

Governors have tremendous capacity to play an influential role in advancing college in high school programs by leveraging their communications platforms to get the word out, setting policy agendas, and exercising their budgetary authority. Multiple state teams highlighted the importance of having a supportive governor to the success of their efforts. For college in high school programs particularly, the governor’s role is a critical one, given the fact that the programs bridge K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and the business community. For more information on the role governors can play, check out the NGA’s topic paper on the subject here.

5. There’s a Lot More Work to Do

The workshop reinforced the complex and interconnected work ahead to ensure that policy advances the accessibility and quality of college in high school programs. The reality is that even states that have strengthened policies in one or two of the areas identified in the CHSA’s framework have more work to do on important elements of others. For example, if a state has a fiscal policy that makes a dual enrollment program free for all students but also has strict eligibility criteria and doesn’t offer adequate navigational supports, participation will be limited to only the highest achieving and most privileged students. States are aware of these complexities and are interested in further collaboration across sectors to work on them, including potentially launching more comprehensive task forces to examine key policy questions.

Conclusion: Double Down on National Support for College in High School Programs

The COVID-19 pandemic will have far-reaching consequences for our nation’s secondary and postsecondary education systems because it will impact not only everyday teaching and learning, but also advanced learning opportunities such as college in high school programs. Despite the disruptions systems are experiencing at this time, states must continue to prioritize efforts to strengthen access to college in high school programs so that these programs can play a critical role in ensuring postsecondary access and success for all students in a post-COVID-19 world.

The CHSA, JFF, the NGA, and our partners look forward to continuing to work with states to help them advance their policies and implementations of these programs.

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