In the past decade, Washington state has poured tremendous resources and energy into getting students ready for and directly admitted into a four-year college: structured “college-prep” curricula in most every high school; aggressive outreach programs from two- and four-year institutions; and campaigning from parents and educators pushing the necessity of a college degree.

For all of that, our best estimate is that only 40% of Washington high school freshmen will go on to get any sort of postsecondary degree. That’s the high end, and it effectively shuts out at least 60% of our students, leaving them with no viable options for getting on with their lives after high school.

A 40% success rate is not a system parents or policymakers should applaud or accept. I’ve studied education policy for the past 20 years, and I’m flummoxed as to why people in our state aren’t more upset, why they’re not outraged. The bulk of our tax dollars go to fund public education, and the return on that investment is that a significant number of our students are leaving high school with no workable plan, and few opportunities for success moving forward.

This is the system that we’ve created, but I ask you, is this the system we really want?

The Partnership for Learning has projected that 70% of our high school students must complete a postsecondary degree by 2030 in order to meet the workforce demands of the state’s economy. That means that half of the 60% will need to get onto a college track in high school, and complete a degree program. While we have seen a slight increase in the number of students who are projected to get a postsecondary degree (31% in 2006, to a projected rate of 40% for the class of 2015), it’s unlikely we’ll see dramatic shifts in these percentages if we just keep doing more of the same, clinging to a false hope that we can both maintain existing privilege within the system, while increasing access and opportunity.

Washington state has recently made steps in the right direction: The Legislature passed the Workforce Education Investment Act, and dropped exit exams as a requirement for high school graduation. But we need fundamental, sweeping change in our systems.

What if we didn’t think of students’ admission to college (immediately following high school) as the singular metric of success for our secondary schools? What if high schools provided a vehicle through which all students, both the 40% and the 60%, had an equitable opportunity to explore their intellectual, academic and career options? Not an either/or choice — on the college track, or off of it — but a variety of unrestricted, intertwined pathways to a multitude of postsecondary and/or career options.


For some students this could be direct admission into a four-year college, but for others this could mean a pathway that might delay college admission, or utilizing post-secondary options in less linear ways (begin a four-year degree, disengage and integrate that knowledge into a work experience; get a career-advancing technical certificate; complete the four-year degree), or include a path into a family-wage, in-demand career that doesn’t require a four-year degree. In short, we need a fundamental rethinking of how we structure and define what it means to be “college ready.”

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The world is full of examples, such as Switzerland, Germany and Finland, where providing students with multiple pathways to college and career leads to higher secondary education completion rates, and a more stable and fulfilled workforce. The problem is, we can’t achieve one of these models by merely tacking on some “career-focused” alternatives. Those systems work in these countries because they aren’t seen as consolations for non-college bound students, or those “less academically inclined”; they’re valued pathways to careers that are enthusiastically endorsed by parents and educators, and respected within the community.

Well-intentioned as we have been by creating this culture of competition around college admission, we’ve constructed a pathway for high school students that is clearly too rigid and narrow for a majority of our students. These are all our students, all 100% of them, and we need to do a better job of recognizing and supporting their individual paths forward into a purposeful and productive adulthood.