• Home
  • |
  • Publications
  • |
  • A “good life” after high school: How schools can help students prepare

A “good life” after high school: How schools can help students prepare

Students in Skyline High School’s Green Energy Pathway cut cardboard to make the frame for a solar house model.

Today’s students are struggling after they leave the K-12 system: fewer students are enrolling in college, and more of those who enroll are floundering and at risk of dropping out. Meanwhile, many who seek to enter the workforce must discover and select a career pathway on their own if their school focuses mostly on college preparation programs. Students preparing to graduate need greater support from their high schools to successfully transition to postsecondary life—and students have ideas on how their schools can do just that.

With support from the Boston-based Barr Foundation, we recently concluded a two-year project focused in part on listening to and learning from high school students across New England. In addition to interviewing caregivers, educators, and administrators, we followed 32 students over 20 months beginning in Spring 2022. Most of the students interviewed were juniors at the onset of our research, which would see them through their senior year of high school and into their early adult lives. Students now find themselves in various life situations: two-year and four-year colleges, vocational training, the military, or the workforce. 

Throughout the study, we highlighted pandemic-era changes students want to keep and those they want to leave behind, as well as how students conceive their unique visions of success. The study culminated in a final report highlighting how six New England high schools embrace multiple pathways to success to help every student achieve a “good life.” 

Based on our conversations, students want their high schools to better prepare them for the expectations of college and the workforce. While many students in our study enjoyed their high school experiences, several said their classes and counseling didn’t adequately prepare them for postsecondary life.  

Better college advising and academic preparation

Students who went on to two-year and four-year colleges wished they had received targeted, in-depth advice from their counselors to make the college-going process easier. Some students felt their guidance counselors gave only surface-level information, covering topics they were already familiar with. One college student who chose her major before the end of high school wished her counselor had helped her plan her senior year schedule “so that I could have taken the right classes in high school that would’ve prepared me better [for college].” Another student wished her counselors went beyond giving general information about college—she would have appreciated proactively shared instructions on applying for financial aid and completing college applications.

Students who enrolled in college also wished their high school classes had higher academic expectations to help them prepare for the rigorous expectations of college. Some students reported struggling to adapt to the different teaching styles, weighted grading, and strict deadlines in college–even if they were high academic achievers in high school. One student said that while their school told students that college would be more difficult, it didn’t adequately prepare them academically: “I remember taking AP classes, and they weren’t as hard, but classes are supposed to be on the same level as college-level courses, so [college] was very different and rigorous. I feel like it should match.” Another student expressed that she struggled with only having one chance to pass exams or turn in assignments in college, as she had several make-up opportunities in high school. “It’s still an adjustment,” she reflected. “It puts more pressure on me…I’m not used to having just one chance.” 

A broader range of postsecondary pathways and back-up options

Some students felt their schools focused too much on one postsecondary pathway, such as college, rather than all available pathways. One student wished her school focused less on college preparation and more on helping students understand all available options. She expressed a desire for her school to “give kids broader exposure [to] what’s out there and what they can do to achieve that.” Another student felt that his school did not fully help him understand different requirements for different career paths, which led him to abandon his plans of becoming a lawyer after he realized how much additional testing and years of school he would need to complete.

Similarly, some students felt their schools focused on helping them develop a plan for a single postsecondary pathway rather than multiple options. As a result, students struggled to shift gears when their initial plans didn’t work out. One student served in the military but was medically discharged shortly after enlisting. He said his high school “did not prepare me for the [military] not working out…They really direct you toward one path.” Another student, who initially planned to attend a four-year college out-of-state, switched to a two-year college in-state due to issues with his paperwork. He wished his high school helped him create a “plan B” and advised current high school students to “have a backup plan” to avoid the hassle of rerouting plans.

Regardless of students’ postsecondary choices, several wished they had a class in high school that taught them what to expect in adulthood, with content ranging from how to excel at the beginning of college to how to file taxes. One student said,  “A lot of kids don’t have the parental figure to tell them how to make the right decisions they need to make just to move forward in life.”

Looking forward

Whether students pursue further education through college, a trade school, the military, or the workforce, they want more support from the adults in their high schools. Educators and school leaders can help students envision many possible pathways to a “good life” by exposing them to a far more diverse range of education, training, work, and mentorship opportunities, and by expanding college advising infrastructure to focus on both career-connected learning and college preparation. Leaders can also help students prepare for the rigors of college and the workforce by reviewing existing curricular materials for rigor and aligning on a shared definition of “good” instruction for all classes, including career exploration courses.

Beyond postsecondary planning and support, we heard students share a range of desires for their high school experiences, such as having more space to explore their identities, seeing their backgrounds reflected in a culturally responsive curriculum, and connecting what they’re learning to the real world. In addition to building relationships with the adolescents in their schools, high school leaders can tap into their students’ perspectives through school improvement surveys like YouthTruth or by creating formal structures to build student voice and agency schoolwide. 

Related Publications

Skip to content