College and Career Pathways

Our Take

  • In too many states, the graduation option that students automatically start in – the default option – puts the burden on individual students and families to choose a pathway that will give them the academic preparation needed.
  • When students are not defaulted into a college- and career-ready (CCR) graduation option, available data show that vulnerable student populations are much less likely to graduate having taken a CCR course of study.
  • K-12, postsecondary systems, and business communities should work together to (re)define graduation options that prepare students for success in a valued destination.

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The current graduation requirements landscape within and across states is complicated, messy, and evolving. Many states are implementing new, additional pathways to graduation, including diplomas that are intended to better prepare students for careers or for advanced coursework in postsecondary education.

  • High school graduates in 14 states had three or more paths to graduation in 2019.
  • Fifteen states offered two paths to graduation.
  • Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had one state-defined path to graduation in 2019. 
  • Twenty-five states have adopted changes to graduation course requirements and/or assessment stakes for future cohorts of students.
Are these pathways designed to appropriately prepare all students for life after high school?

Too many graduation options available to students do not include requirements that will prepare them for college or for a career. Only seven states and the District of Columbia require that students take a college- and career-ready (CCR) course of study to graduate, and in an additional 14 states, a CCR course of study is the default option for students.

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In states where students are not automatically expected to complete – or defaulted – into a college- and career-ready (CCR) graduation option, students of color, low income students, and English learners are significantly less likely to graduate having taken a CCR course of study.  For example, Indiana, a state that starts all students in a CCR option, has a three percentage point gap between Black students and White students completing the CCR option. In Massachusetts, a state where students must opt into a CCR option, the Black-White gap is much higher at 22 percentage points. This has serious implications for educational equity and does a disservice to students.

In the last year, a number of states have modified or added to the number of options available to students for graduation. States adopt these policy changes citing they provide opportunities for students to personalize their education, or better prepare students for career paths or postsecondary coursework.

Offering more options and flexibility is good for many students, but they do not need to result in lower expectations. It does harm students to allow them to graduate having not taken an appropriately rigorous course of study and to find they are not ready for their next steps.

When states do offer multiple sets of graduation requirements, each set should be aligned to college- and career- ready expectations that lead to a meaningful high school diploma. At a minimum, states should make a CCR graduation option the “default” option for students entering 9th grade.

Data Explorer