clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The case against senior year of high school

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Some rural school districts in Oregon are experimenting with "13th grade" — keeping students in the school system in high schools even as they attend their first year of college. Tuition is free thanks to a loophole that lets students keep their state per-student funding, since they're technically in high school. And it seems to be going well, Rebecca Schuman reports in Slate.

Bulking up freshman year of college with a better support system is a great idea. But you don't need a 13th grade to do it. Instead, more schools should turn senior year into a high school-college hybrid dedicated to helping students make the jump to higher education.

While still technically enrolled in high school, students could start earning their first college credits through local community colleges or public universities. This is already common through dual enrollment programs, where students do exactly that. As Oregon has learned, per-student funding for high school seniors is more than enough to cover community college tuition plus an extensive support system to help students move from high school to college.

For the high achievers headed to selective colleges, it would offer a chance to earn free credits. For regular students — the vast majority of college-bound seniors — making senior year of high school also stand in for freshman year of college could close gaps between K-12 and higher education, making the education system more cooperative and more efficient.

Students not headed to college could take a year for vocational training or internships, with more supervision than they'd otherwise have in the first year in the workforce.

Everybody would benefit from changing senior year

Is creating a college-focused senior year elitist? Not particularly. Even though most high school seniors don't end up earning a bachelor's degree, the majority — about two-thirds — at least enroll in college after finishing high school. Creating a high school-college hybrid, with alternative options for students who aren't planning on college, casts a much wider net than you might think. And it makes sense for a wide range of students, from top achievers to stragglers considering dropping out.

If you're headed to a selective college, twelfth grade hardly matters. Even first-semester grades often aren't ready by the time the college applications are due. For understandable reasons, colleges fight hard to dispel the notion that senior year is meaningless, pointing out that it is possible to have an application offer rescinded if grades go off a cliff. But in reality, this is incredibly rare, either because top students don't usually end up with a collection of Fs or because colleges actually want the students they've admitted to show up in the fall. Colleges rescind at most a handful of applications each year.

For everyone else, the mismatch between what colleges expect and what high schools teach is well-documented. About 20 percent of first-time college students end up needing remedial coursework, suggesting that even students who graduate high school in good standing and go onto college aren't always prepared when they get there.

Getting college curriculums into high school classrooms works

The best solution to better integrate K-12 and college would be to make sure what students learn in high school lines up with what they need to be ready for college. That's one of the goals of the Common Core state standards.

In the short term, though, getting colleges directly involved with high school seniors would help smooth the transition to college, in part by getting remediation out of the way before students are spending their own money on tuition.

This has already been tried on the local level. In McAllen, Texas, enrolling high school students in college courses cut the number of students who needed remedial courses after high school in half. In Kentucky, college faculty worked with high school teachers to create a curriculum for 12th-graders that basically covered the content of remedial math and language arts. Unsurprisingly, students finished high school much more likely to start earning college credits immediately, rather than being stuck in remedial classes for their first semesters.

The Gates Foundation also helped create early college high schools, where students start earning college credit as early as their junior year and graduate with the equivalent of an associate's degree. This is more aggressive than starting college senior year, but the evidence suggests it's working. Students at early college high schools were more likely to go to college after high school and more likely to earn a college degree.

Allowing students to start college before they finish high school could cut the cost of college and speed them along the path to a degree. It could also make students less likely to drop out. And it would make senior year actually mean something. Twelfth-graders are capable of handling college-level work; it's time to let more of them try.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.