Cover: Raising the Bar for Graduation Pathways to College and Work

Raising the Bar for Graduation Pathways to College and Work

Early Signals on How Louisiana's Education Policy Strategies Are Affecting College and Career Readiness

Published Jun 11, 2019

by Shelly Culbertson, Matthew D. Baird, Sophie Meyers, Julia H. Kaufman

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Research Questions

  1. What are on-the-ground responses to Louisiana state actions, including how graduation pathways are being interpreted, acted upon, and perceived by districts and educators?
  2. What are early signals of changes in outcomes that may be associated with Louisiana's actions related to graduation pathways?

Since 2012, Louisiana has been developing policies to improve student outcomes in the areas of early childhood education, K–12 academics, teacher preparation, and graduation pathways; an overview of these efforts is provided in the 2018 RAND report Raising the Bar: Louisiana's Strategies for Improving Student Outcomes. The current report, which is part of a four-part series on the implementation and outcomes of these reforms, focuses on Louisiana's implementation of high school graduation pathways and associated efforts to improve college readiness, career readiness, and access to financial aid.

In the 2014–2015 school year, Louisiana began requiring students in grades 9–12 to pursue one or both of two possible graduation pathways: one focused on preparation for college, and one focused career and technical education (CTE). To increase college enrollment among students who might not have attended college otherwise, Louisiana required that all students take the ACT college entrance exam (beginning with the graduating class of 2013) and fill out financial aid forms (beginning with the graduating class of 2018). To improve links with employers, Louisiana required students pursuing CTE pathways to obtain an industry-based credential. In support of these goals, Louisiana took additional steps related to data and accountability, teacher training, and partnerships with higher education and workforce boards.

The authors of this report explore early signals regarding changes in student outcomes that might be associated with these actions and consider the implications for state policies in Louisiana and across the United States.

Key Findings

  • Louisiana implemented requirements that all high school students follow either a college-bound pathway or a CTE pathway, and Louisiana's universities and employers were often active partners in planning and implementation of the new pathways.
  • To increase college enrollment among students who might not have attended college otherwise, Louisiana required that all students take the ACT college entrance exam and fill out financial aid forms. In parallel with the ACT requirement, the numbers of FRL and minority students who scored in the top quartile of ACT scores and then enrolled in college approximately doubled between 2011 and 2016.
  • Low-income students scored lower on the ACT and were less likely to enroll in a college-bound high school pathway than their higher-income counterparts. However, race and ethnicity differences were generally smaller than income differences for the other outcomes examined in the study.
  • The CTE-focused graduation pathway, called Jump Start, increased in participation since its start in 2014. Over 20 percent of high school students graduated from the Jump Start pathway in 2017–2018.
  • In 2017–2018, students obtained about 100,000 industry-based credentials. Yet only about 1 percent were in the category rated highest by the state as leading to high-wage, high-demand jobs.
  • Putting the revised requirements in place required professional school counselors to take on the added responsibilities of shepherding students through pathway decisions and planning for college and career.
  • Other challenges for supporting college and career readiness included limited flexibility for students to shift from one pathway to another, incomplete access to AP (Advanced Placement) and advanced math courses in schools, stigma against career pathways, and complex and demanding requirements for career pathway credential examinations.


  • Requiring all high school students to take the ACT exam has potential to increase college enrollment, particularly for high-performing minority and lower-income students, but states should take care to mitigate the potential negative messages to low scorers.
  • Requiring students to graduate on a college-bound pathway or a CTE-focused pathway should entail significant early high school information about the pathways and flexibility to switch pathways.
  • When implementing multiple diploma pathways, educators should be intentional with their messaging so that public opinion accurately reflects understanding of opportunities in all available pathways.
  • States should consider additional academic supports that students might need in order to successfully pass the highest-rated credentialing tests.
  • When implementing new statewide high school pathways, states should provide additional resources to schools for counseling students on pathway choices and requirements.
  • Partnerships among high schools, local institutions of higher education, employers, workforce boards, and regional planning offices have the potential to increase rigor and relevance in high school courses and give students the chance to gain exposure to college courses and the needs of the workplace.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation and conducted within RAND Education and Labor.

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