What seven high school students taught me about the need for education Pathways programs

A lesson school and business leaders should prioritize
U.S. Program President Allan Golston meets with students participating in various education pathways programs in Yakima, Washington, coordinated by Educational Service District 105.
U.S. Program President Allan Golston meets with students participating in various education pathways programs in Yakima, Washington, coordinated by Educational Service District 105.
Allan Golston
Blog Post
“Knowing that I’ll be getting my AA degree when I graduate high school, helped me realize that this is my time to choose. This is my time to decide what I want to be.” 

Zaid Munir, who participates in the Accelerate ASU program, is a freshman at Eisenhower High School in Yakima, Washington.


 Zaid Munir is a freshman at Eisenhower High School and is in the Accelerate ASU program.
Zaid Munir

Zaid is one of 12 siblings, he loves to run long distance, play the guitar and standup bass, and is considering majoring in finance and banking in college. I was fortunate to meet and talk with him and six other incredible high school students recently – Josue, Jessica, Oscar, Estefany, Lyndsey, and Leo – all of whom are participating in various education pathways programs in Yakima, Washington, coordinated by Educational Service District 105.

Education pathways programs can take different shapes, such as dual enrollment programs or early college high schools, but these programs essentially allow students to earn college credit while still in high school – saving them time and money towards a degree or credential. When done well, they also feature other program attributes, such as intentionally designed course sequences, career-connected learning, and strong student supports such as mentoring and advising.  

In our work with partners across the country developing or expanding these programs, we’ve seen how critical it is to center student voice and students’ needs in the design of these types of programs, which is why I was eager to meet with students in Yakima participating in a variety of pathways programs. 

The students I met with are all earning college credit through programs such as College in the High School, Running Start, Accelerate ASU Program, and other offerings. Some programs are even designed so students can graduate high school with an associate degree at little to no cost to them, helping set them on their way to jobs in fields such as nursing, electrical engineering, finance and banking, aviation, political science, and orthodontia, all fields these students are pursuing.   

I asked those seven students what it’s like taking college courses in high school and how pathways programs have impacted their college and career plans. “It’s very encouraging recognizing that I can and am capable of completing rigorous courses,” Leo told me. He’s considering law school and wants to pursue English and creative writing in undergrad.  

Oscar, who plans to become an electrical engineer, said participating in the pathways program feels like building a bridge between high school and a big university or community college. Estefany, who plans to transition into a nursing program after high school, talked about how the program has expanded her personal horizons, saying, “It's been really good for me personally. It's given me a lot of opportunities. I've competed in two different competitions on the international level.” 

It was energizing to hear directly from these amazing students about their pathways experiences because so much has changed in education and across our education system since I was in high school. I remember taking AP courses and loving them, but I didn’t quite know how it was all going to come together to support my postsecondary and career aspirations. Today, I understand how critically important those courses were in helping me succeed beyond high school.  

Although we know that all students should have access to and benefit from early college programs, many students don’t have that access or the supports they need as they transition from high school to a postsecondary education or the workforce. One leading reason is that K-12 education, higher education, and workforce systems too often aren’t connected and operate in siloes. Another reason is that outdated narratives about who should go to college and why mistakenly reinforce the “one-size-fits-all” idea that there’s only one path to economic mobility and opportunity after high school.

The research shows that without access to learning opportunities and supports, many students lose momentum across key transitions between high school, college, and employment, especially Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds. Nationally, only 60% of Black and Latino high school graduates immediately transition into a postsecondary program, compared with 70% of their white peers. Additionally, 42% of students with parents who went to college take at least one college-level class in high school, but only 24% of those whose parents didn't attend college do.

In the Gates Foundation’s home state of Washington, nearly 90% of high schoolers say they want to continue their education after high school, but only 50% of high school graduates immediately enroll in a postsecondary program, compared with 63% nationally. That’s why our Washington State Initiative is squarely focused on supporting local partnerships to identify and develop solutions that help their students see a clear path to success in the careers they choose – solutions such as helping students complete their FAFSA applications or access effective college and career advising programs.

We can improve these college-going outcomes, not just for students in Washington state, but for students across the country by providing them with strong advising, early college coursework, dual enrollment opportunities, internships, and work-based learning opportunities that are coherent and connected. These efforts can help increase student achievement and provide the necessary supports students need as they transition from high school, seek certificates or credentials including 2- and 4-year degrees and apprenticeships, and start their careers.

Understanding the challenges high school students face and the supports they need is fundamental to how the foundation is working with partners to implement our Pathways strategy. One key component of our work is Accelerate ED. Through our partners, we’re spurring the creation and expansion of more connected pathway systems across K-12 and postsecondary that provide students with the structured paths, guidance, resources, and experiences they need to put them on the path to a postsecondary credential of value and a future with greater economic mobility.

All students must have these same opportunities, which is why more K-12 administrators, postsecondary leaders, state education leaders, business leaders, state and local policymakers, and others need to work together to bring high-quality pathways programs to students across the country. And if these programs don’t exist in some schools, more students and parents should ask their school leaders to make dual enrollment and similar programs available.

Students like Zaid, Josue, Jessica, Oscar, Estefany, Lyndsey, and Leo shouldn’t be the exception. All high school students should have the right opportunities at every stage of their education-to-career pathway. It’s an issue school and business leaders should prioritize

I won’t ever forget what I learned in Yakima that day, and I’m especially grateful to have met those seven talented students. Their aspirations reflect those of so many other students around the country, and what they all want isn’t complicated. They aspire to graduate high school on a path they design for themselves that leads to future economic success. By building a bridge between our K-12, higher education, and workforce systems, we can all play a role in helping them get there.