“College isn’t for everyone.” That’s something I hear regularly from school staff and politicians, but rarely from students or families.

As a white person who grew up in an upper middle-class household, I never had anyone question my postsecondary aspirations — ever. The suggestion that some students are destined for certain paths and others are not often stems from biases about race, class and gender.

When I encounter adults who doubt their students’ interest in college, I encourage them to go to the source. That’s what we did in our recent survey.

More than 96 percent of 7,000 high school students we asked said they want to continue their education beyond high school through apprenticeships, two-year or four-year colleges. Yet only 65 percent of our South King County students enroll in postsecondary education, and only 30 percent earn a degree or credential by their mid-twenties.

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So what should we do? Regional and state policymakers can do more by supporting the King County Promise and by increasing funding for college and career planning and school counselors. For example, the state requires schools to work with students on individualized High School and Beyond Plans, but doesn’t provide additional funding to staff this work.

Schools can do more, too. I work with staff from 11 South King County high schools that are re-engineering curriculum and supports so that more students are set up for college and career success. Here are six lessons I’ve learned.


Start early. Our high school students say they receive little information about college and career before their senior year. Schools should introduce this information sooner and break it into smaller pieces that build over time. For example, students should learn about ways to pay for college in ninth grade so that by the time they begin their senior year, they’re prepared to file forms and evaluate financial aid award letters.

Introduce students to all college and career options. Too often, those responsible for our young people’s education inject their own biases into the conversation or guide students into paths that someone else envisioned for them. We must encourage students to be inquisitive about their interests and goals and support them in their path of choice. So we need to make sure they learn about all options, including technical training and apprenticeships and two-year and four-year degree programs.

Make college and career planning part of the school day. Too many students miss out if the only place they can get postsecondary information is through special events outside the school day. Make it a class. If this isn’t feasible, embed, embed, embed. Practice admissions and scholarship essays in language arts class, incorporate labor market data into math, and include discussions about “soft skills” in class projects. Ensuring all students receive basic information narrows the opportunity gap.

South King County schools falling short in preparing students for college, careers, report says

Team up with high school counselors and career center staff. They can’t do it alone. Beyond giving students an academic foundation, teachers can be influential in drawing connections between careers and subject content, reminding students of critical deadlines, announcing opportunities for programming and building confidence. Educators don’t have to be the expert in everything, but they should take time to know what resources are available.

Use data and technology to direct resources and supports. Students want personalization, but our counselor caseloads make that difficult. Schools can collect data on students’ goals and use technology to better case manage and tailor information. The process for a student who wants to become an apprentice is different from a student who wants to apply to a four-year school. Technology can help schools keep track of milestones and share unique opportunities for these two students.

Listen to students and respond. Throughout the open-ended survey responses on how schools can improve college and career planning supports, one word rose above the rest: 542 students asked for “more.” More information about options. More trips to college campuses. More career talks. More time to talk to counselors.


Our students simply want more, and as education leaders, we must respond. This is our first step to closing the chasm between aspirations and outcomes.