Opening Up More Pathways to College and Beyond

A sixth-grade math teacher leads a lesson about the connection between music and math.

This fall, while millions of young people returned to school or transitioned from high school to higher education, the overall numbers of young people enrolling in college were…not great, but they are improving. Recent reports from the National Student Clearinghouse show that college enrollment has declined nationwide by almost one million students since 2019. The good news is that the rate of decline is slowing down. Another positive sign is that students participating in dual enrollment programs are boosting two-year college enrollment.

If we are to put more students on a path to a degree or credential that helps them achieve their life and career goals, it is essential to understand what’s driving the declines we’ve seen in recent years. The pandemic certainly caused many students to rethink their college plans, but in order to improve education systems to better meet the needs and aspirations of students, we must also better understand how students are making decisions about their futures and which factors inform and drive their choices.

To that end, recent research from HCM Strategists and Edge Research asked over 1,600 students in seven states why they were opting out of college. As Allan Golston, President of the US Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation outlined in a recent piece, three reasons cited by these students stood out: 1) concerns about college affordability; 2) questions about the value of college and the return on investment; and 3) concerns about disrupting or interrupting their livelihoods to attend college.

This research is consistent with other research that similarly speaks to student concerns around affordability and the fundamental value proposition of education after high school. Recent research on Gen Z and how they see their futures also provides interesting insights. That is why having a deeper and evidence-based understanding of postsecondary value continues to be a critical need in higher education. These findings also underscore: 1) how important increasing access to high-quality advising is for students, so they can access information that helps them feel confident about selecting programs that align with their goals and circumstances; and 2) the importance of dual enrollment programs and other approaches that help students earn college credits while still in high school at little to no additional cost.

This issue of Wayfinders also takes a deeper look at ways our education system can increase the likelihood of students seeing a clear path for themselves that spans high school, college, and the workforce, such as rethinking how we teach and sequence math education. Math is a consequential subject in today’s job market, and too often students who experience math as a barrier rather than as a gateway to success – or don’t see how math courses lead to a credential and job opportunities – end up limiting their options rather than expanding them. The Gates Foundation is joining many organizations working to change that, as highlighted in an announcement this month.

What is clear is that if we want more young people to achieve the dream of a college degree and beyond, we have to make the dream more achievable. It will take an all-hands-on-deck approach, from looking at the K-12 system to investing in more approaches to helping students explore and progress along their pathways, to make this happen.

Also in this issue of Wayfinders:

  • A new strategy aimed at improving math education experience and outcomes
  • A new report on mathematics education to increase equitable access to postsecondary options

The Math Classroom Students Deserve

One of the major barriers many students face in continuing their education is the negative experience they had with math. Math is critical to success in today’s world, but unfortunately too many students don’t find math class engaging or relevant. As a country, we must do more to improve K-12 math education for all students, and this is an important step toward that vision. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s K-12 Education team is focusing on K-12 math education as the core of its strategy over the next decade so all students will be prepared for college and careers. The foundation will work with its partners to:
Support the development and use of high-quality math instructional materials;
Ensure more math teachers have access to and receive high-quality preparation and ongoing, job-embedded professional learning;
Provide school systems with models and practices that support coherent math instruction;
Strengthen the alignment between high school and college math course pathways to increase student success and support their career goals; and
Help bridge the gap between research on what works and what actually happens in math classrooms.

Learn more about the foundation’s work here and here.

Making Math a Way, Not a Wall

Across the more than 13,000 K-12 school districts in the US, mathematics pipelines can create barriers to pathways for many students – particularly Black, Latino, Native American students, and those from low-income background. The Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas in Austin, in collaboration with Education Strategy Group, Community College Resource Center, and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities recently released a report called Launch Years: A New Vision for the Transition from High School to Postsecondary Mathematics. The report outlines two main goals: one, improve learning opportunities for each student during the last two years of high school and beyond and two, dismantle institutional and systemic barriers–such as lower-resourced high schools–that block equitable access and opportunities for students to succeed in mathematics.

The vision outlined in the report began as a collaborative and coordinated movement in 2018 called The Launch Years to meet the needs of students who were most likely to encounter these barriers, such as Black and Latino young people, and young people from lower-income households. Using lessons learned from this initiative, the Launch Years Collaborative identified seven recommendations that serve as a call to action for K-12 and higher ed leaders, educators, and policymakers to transform mathematics education. Over the next three years, this work will continue and grow as an additional 17 states join Washington, Georgia and Texas, along with national organizations and leaders in mathematics education and educational equity to reimagine mathematics education and improve math achievement outcomes.

What we are reading: