Four Ways to Scale Evidence-Based Strategies to Improve Postsecondary Education

Professor teaching college students

Expanding access to postsecondary education programs, and supporting students once they’re enrolled in such programs, may lead to a rewarding career path. Toward this endeavor, more than 400 senior U.S. Department of Education leaders gathered in early May to discuss the importance of postsecondary education, a top priority for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.

During this session, we shared the importance of and most promising strategies for increasing postsecondary access, persistence, and completion. Other speakers at this event included Secretary Cardona, Under Secretary James Kvaal, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Postsecondary Education Michelle Cooper. Leveraging evidence scans conducted by AIR's Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education (CARPE), our remarks focused on the need to invest more strongly in scaling and institutionalizing evidence-based strategies to improve postsecondary education outcomes for today’s students. Here, we offer four ways to do that:

1. Use data to continue to monitor progress toward significantly expanding postsecondary access, affordability, completion, and success, and closing gaps for underserved students and working adults.

The United States continues to lag behind other nations in postsecondary attainment, and yet there are limited resources to help America’s young people and adults complete credentials at the scale needed to meet the economy’s demand for skilled labor. This issue existed before the pandemic and has only gotten worse since it began. Disparities persist by race and class in postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and completion.

While the current labor market has increased demand for quicker, more affordable pathways into high-demand jobs, barriers to accessing such pathways persist. If the goal is for all Americans to complete at least some level of postsecondary training—a growing necessity in order to access “good jobs”—more resources are needed to help high school students and working adults successfully transition into higher education and earn credentials of value.

2. Invest in career and technical education (CTE), which can contribute to more equitable access to, and successful completion of, high-quality postsecondary education programs.

CTE courses and programs prepare students with academic and technical knowledge and with the general employability skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Most high school students take at least one CTE course and many college students pursue credentials as part of CTE career pathway programs.

Comprehensive CTE models are sometimes implemented in Early College High Schools (ECHS), and ECHS have been shown to be effective at increasing postsecondary attainment, thereby facilitating better labor market opportunities. ECHS are partnerships between secondary schools or districts and two- or four-year colleges or universities that offer students the opportunity to earn an associate degree or up to two years of college credits toward a bachelor’s degree while in high school, at no or low cost to students. They often provide a combination of education, training, and other services that align with the skill needs of in-demand industries and occupations. These programs help underrepresented students be more college ready, make good postsecondary choices, and successfully complete their chosen programs.

3. Expand supports for career exploration and planning grounded in an expectation of lifelong learning.

To thrive now and in the future, we must better prepare today’s students to become lifelong learners and to anticipate several career shifts during their working lives.

Supporting all learners in finding productive pathways in our fast-changing and highly dynamic economy necessitates more robust career exploration, planning, development, and support systems. To thrive now and in the future, we must better prepare today’s students to become lifelong learners and to anticipate several career shifts during their working lives. Secondary education must help today’s students develop the foundational skills needed for success in any field, including strong literacy, numeracy, and digital fluency, as well as communication, collaboration, and problem-solving skills.

At the same time, they must help students chart their initial paths in the labor market. While the evidence base on effective career advising is limited, Individual Career and Academic Plans are a promising approach to offering scaffolded career advising activities that help students align their career and life goals with their academic, postsecondary, and career options.

4. Leverage technology to vastly expand access to customized, intensive, and proactive supports for students who need them in cost-effective and more equitable ways.

Intelligent Tutoring Systems have the potential to support digital learning for today’s students and job seekers by offering the advantages of individualized, intensive tutoring to learners without needing to recruit and train a large fleet of tutors. Learners need only a device and an internet connection to access a rich, virtual tutoring experience. Computer-based tutors can also help learners who may have missed class or not quite understood the content taught stay caught up. Data science advances have powered promising predictive analytics systems to help identify students at risk of stopping or dropping out. Such systems need to be coupled with a human advisor who proactively reaches out to students and offers supports in real time to help keep them on track and improve postsecondary outcomes.

Together with the U.S. Department of Education and many other research and education partners and stakeholders, CARPE and other AIR staff will continue to build the evidence base and field capacity to implement, scale, and institutionalize the effective approaches and supports necessary to help today’s students be well prepared for, successfully complete, and realize the benefits from postsecondary education.

Alexandria Radford headshot
Senior Director, Center for Applied Research in Postsecondary Education (CARPE)