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  • Writer's picture James Lanich, Ph.D.

Fixing a Leaky Pipeline

Updated: Nov 29, 2018

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted a surprising trend in higher education: four-year colleges and universities are trying to attract more transfer students, and making it easier for them to assimilate without losing credits they have earned. On the whole, this is a laudable development. Historically, our institutions of higher learning have short-changed transfer students – the majority of whom tend to be low-income or people of color. Loss of credits and having to re-take courses toward their chosen degrees has been a major stumbling block for community college students seeking to transfer – one that contributes to high attrition and low graduation rates among transfer students. To overcome this, the Times reports, universities are working in partnership with community colleges to improve alignment while offering more personalized counseling to transfer applicants.

While this is certainly an issue deserving attention, it underscores a broader, systemic problem affecting not just higher ed but public education in general. Exhaustive research has shown that transitions along the “K through Job” pipeline – from elementary to middle school, high school, post-secondary and beyond – are more often than not the decisive, make-or-break factors contributing to a student’s failure or success. Where there is strong alignment between, for example, high school requirements and middle school preparation, the transition becomes a “momentum point,” accelerating the student’s development by presenting new challenges for which he or she is well prepared. Conversely, where that alignment is lacking, transitions become “choke points” in the pipeline. When a student veers off course, it is usually at one of these transitional choke points. The plight of community college transfer students who essentially have to start over at a four-year college is just one glaring example.

Clearly, more work has to be done to improve alignment, remove choke points and ensure more seamless transitions across all levels of education. At the heart of the issue is a lack of communication among the parties with a stake in improving educational outcomes for more students, namely school district leaders, college administrators and employers. They need to partner with each other, share data, and assemble curricula and standards with a common goal in mind – getting students to and through college with job-ready skills.

To achieve this requires an employer-led model that begins at the end – in other words, understanding the skills required of the modern, evolving workforce, both today and in the future, then backwards-mapping the educational pathways, all the way to kindergarten, that will lead to workforce readiness. Our organization, Educational Results Partnership, works with business and academia to develop data-driven strategies for improving college and career readiness for a broader population of students. Much of that work is focused on creating opportunities for historically disenfranchised students and building a more diverse workforce. A key variable in the equation is identifying and raising awareness of critical transition points where students are at risk of falling behind, and figuring out how to better prepare students for each successive step in their educational journey.

The good news is that solutions already exist. Many school systems have succeeded in overcoming this particular obstacle and, in the process, have narrowed achievement and equity gaps in their schools. As educators at all levels seek ways to improve opportunities for more students, they can start by working together to plug the leaks in the educational pipeline and better guide students along their pathways toward college and career.


James Lanich, Ph.D., is the founder, president and CEO of Educational Results Partnership (ERP), a nonprofit organization committed to improving equity and educational outcomes through the application of data analytics. Our work focuses on identifying successful systems, practices, programs, and pathways in public education that improve college and career readiness. Additionally, we foster collaboration across academia and business to align educational curriculum with workforce needs.


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