Preparing Students for Life Beyond High School

Few factors affect the long-term direction of students’ lives more than the quality of their K-12 education.

For students who decide to attend a four-year university, their ability to keep up with college-level work is closely linked to how well their high school prepared them. Additionally, high school is the ideal time to consider what kind of post-secondary education to pursue—or if they want to go directly into the workforce. Unfortunately, the mere possession of a high school diploma does not guarantee that students are ready to become productive workers or to pursue post-secondary credentials.

The problems ailing K-12 institutions are seemingly endless. Aside from concerns over the quality of instruction, students often miss out on crucial one-on-one guidance from a school counselor—either due to a lack of counselors or because counselors are too bogged down with other administrative tasks to give meaningful attention to their directionless students.

The Martin Center sat down with North Carolina’s superintendent, Mark Johnson, to discuss efforts being made on state and local levels to ensure students leave high school with their best foot forward.


To start off, tell us about your involvement in the MyFutureNC Commission.

Well, the MyFutureNC Commission is really exciting. Not just as an education leader, not just as a parent, but as someone who is really concerned about the future of North Carolina. We need to have a post-secondary attainment goal. We are one of the states where we do pretty well with post-secondary attainment, but we can do better. And one way to do better is to have a goal: Where are we heading and how do we get there? Margaret Spellings was really instrumental in helping put this together; she called me early on in my tenure here as NC superintendent and immediately I knew that this was the kind of work that I wanted to work with her on. And it is great to now have [North Carolina Community College System president] Peter Hans as a partner in that as well.

We got together with education leaders, business leaders, community leaders, to really flesh out the goals we want North Carolina to reach by 2030, in terms of how many students are coming out with high-value post-secondary credentials, or community college degrees, or serving in the military, or even a four-year college degree. Those goals are not just about our economy and the fact that employers are having a hard time filling positions right now with a skilled workforce. It’s also for those students. We have a lot of students who are graduating from high school, but they don’t know their next steps.

And there are so many great careers waiting for students, whether they just want to go right into a career, or if they think community college is the right choice, or if serving in the military is the right choice. With a goal, we will be better able to fulfill that promise for students.


That’s interesting—about all of the different careers that are available to students—because sometimes we hear stories of high school students who are made to believe that the only way to succeed in life is to earn a four-year degree. How do schools in North Carolina inform students of alternative career pathways such as vocational training or apprenticeships?

You’re exactly right. For far too long, students have felt that the education leaders have pushed only college as the way to be successful. So, it starts at the top: It starts with the leaders proactively getting out there, in the schools, in front of the students and say: “You will be a success. It is up to you what career pathway you’ll take to be that success. You can practice and study and get a certificate in welding—in high school in North Carolina—and you can come out, graduate from high school and be a welder and have a great prosperous career. Or, if you want to, you can go down the track of a four-year degree, then a master’s degree, or even a PhD. You can be successful that way, too.”

It’s important to embrace that every individual is unique and has unique strengths. So, we need to build the pathways for each of those strengths to be successful. It starts with what we are doing right now, talking about it, getting that message out, making sure everyone hears that there are multiple pathways to success. The second is what we’re working on with the MyFutureNC Commission: County by county, building out the leadership structure—with local businesses being able to come into the schools and community colleges and say: “Here’s where the careers are right now, we need to teach students about these options, and then we need to teach them how they get here.”

When I taught high school, I taught a lot of students who were not on the four-year college track. But they kept hearing from education leaders: “If you want to be a success, you have to go to college.” Well, that just made them give up. Quite frankly, they just gave up because if they weren’t on a college track, then in their mind they heard, “Well, I’m not going to be a success.” We need to proactively show students what those career pathways look like in their own hometowns.

And that’s going to take the leadership on the local level, with the support of state-level leadership, going in and making those connections between the school districts, the community colleges, and the places of employment, and having programs like apprenticeships, having programs where they come into the school and say, “Here’s what your career could look like, here’s what the benefits look like, here’s what career growth looks like. Importantly, here are the steps you need to take in order to reach this career. That doesn’t mean you have to go to college, but you need to graduate with your high school diploma, you need to get this credential after high school, or you need to go to a two-year institution and get your associate’s degree.” That information will be a very important part of making this a reality.


Part of getting that message out, on a student-to-student level, depends a great deal on guidance counselors. They play a pivotal role in helping students discern which career path is best for them. However, we hear cases where their actual ability to advise students is hampered by either mountains of paperwork or because the counselor-to-student ratio is dramatically disproportionate. What efforts have there been to ensure that counselors are not over-burdened and that they can focus on their primary role as a mentor?

That’s a great question. We’re focused on having more school counselors in the schools, lowering that ratio, so they can take the time with each individual student in order to help them plan out their career pathways. Also, this is important on another topic: school safety. School counselors play an important part in school safety; not just helping students plan out their future, but they’re also someone that students sometimes feel like they can go to in order to express their feelings. School counselors can really help us with those mental health issues that are ultimately the root cause of these school safety tragedies that we see in the country today. So, we definitely need to lower the ratio of school counselors to students, and that will be a big step forward in making sure they can help with that career coaching.


Dual-enrollment programs provide students with a unique opportunity to experience college-level coursework at a community college, and to explore either vocational or academic career pathways. What do you think is the future of dual enrollment?

Aggressive expansion. Dual enrollment has been such a success for the students who are able to take part. And we call the participating schools “Cooperative Innovative High Schools.” And you’re exactly right, dual enrollment allows two different tracks for students. One track is going to a high school on a community college campus, being able to complete your high school work, but then also being able to take those skills-training classes where you’re actually getting skills that you can then get a degree in—while you’re in high school. And then you can go and start your career after you graduate. That is a fantastic option and that is happening right now in many of these high schools in North Carolina.

At the same time, students who know they want to go to college, to get that four-year degree, they’re taking advantage of it as well because they can also take classes at the community college that count toward their college credit. They are then able to go to a UNC system school, they can enter as a sophomore or junior, right after graduating from high school, which saves them money, which saves them time, and helps them to go and get that degree with less debt.


Has there been some friction with the community college system over how dual-enrollment programs get implemented?

No, no, they’re very excited as well. This is a great thing for North Carolina and it’s a shining jewel in our system, both in our K-12 and for our community college system. We’re working closely together to make sure we expand those opportunities. And again, the most important work is actually done on the local level. Our job at the state level is to try to not put in too many regulations and reduce regulations, so that they can expand aggressively, and also provide the funding so that they can expand aggressively. But the best Cooperative Innovative High Schools are where you have a very strong relationship between the K-12 and community college, because that’s when opportunities really start to flourish.


ACT and SAT scores show that many North Carolina students aren’t ready for college, but still go nonetheless. Is there a plan to fix this issue?

That builds into everything we’re doing for our students. We need to make sure that a high school diploma from a North Carolina high school represents that that student is either ready to start a fulfilling career path or to go to the next level in their education. And that is something that is one of my top priorities. And that’s going to happen by starting to have these conversations earlier in middle school around what it takes to reach these career pathways.


Are there other initiatives underway to improve students’ college readiness?

Yes, we will be launching more parental engagement this year. It’s important for us to get that message out as broadly as possible. So, we’re actually going to be sending this information to students, directly to be put in their hands, with the information of “here are the different tracks you can take,” whether it’s get a job after high school or get a job after community college, or get a job after going to a four-year university. And show them what the salaries are for those careers, compared to what the average wage is for a North Carolinian. Empower them with that information and hopefully inspire that “a-ha!” moment of “Okay, I’m going to look at this track and what it actually takes for me to be successful in this pathway.”

Shannon Watkins is a policy associate at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.