Sweating the Small Stuff: Rural and Urban Perspectives on Post-Secondary Preparation


It seems indisputable that preparing students for success beyond high school should be the end goal of Colorado’s public school districts. While few educators would disagree with that statement, there are divergent opinions on how to get there. That is why Keystone Policy Center has unveiled a  new report providing an in-depth analysis addressing the urgent challenge of equipping students for success beyond high school. This comprehensive examination, titled “Sweating the Small Stuff: Rural and Urban Perspectives on Post-Secondary Preparation,” focuses on two distinct educational environments: Denver Public Schools’ CEC Early College and Center Consolidated School District 26JT.

An abundance of research studies released in recent years show that a rapidly growing percentage of well-paying jobs being created or soon to be created will require education or training beyond high school – 70 percent by 2027 is one oft-cited figure. Most of these studies predate the sudden explosion of widely available artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, which seem likely to accelerate that trend.

Over time, the definition of what constitutes post-secondary education has shifted. For decades academic tracking in high schools pushed many low-income students and students of color into non-college pathways that ended at high school graduation (if not before) and paved the way for white and more affluent students to go to four-year colleges. As two-year community colleges and associate degrees proliferated, the “college for all movement” gained prominence in the early 2000s. This movement emphasized the importance of a four-year degree but sometimes grudgingly acknowledged the value of two-year degree and industry certifications as well.

More recently, the definition of post-secondary education has broadened further to include trade union apprenticeships, certificate programs, and even military service in some cases. Driving this change has been the growing realization that significant numbers of jobs that pay good wages go unfilled because too few people qualify for them. Continuing some kind of course of study after high school, including narrowly tailored training programs, came to be seen as a viable path to a middle-class lifestyle.

Summary of Recommendations

The successful post-secondary work being done at CEC Early College and in the Center School District is based on many years of experience. Both institutions have kept a persistent focus on not only getting high school graduates into post-secondary opportunities, but being prepared to succeed there.

A 2023 report by the CDHE, “Pathways to Prosperity,” provides some useful recommendations for strengthening post-secondary strategies in high schools across Colorado:

  • CDHE should work with institutions of higher education, K-12 partners, and the workforce to encourage preparation, enrollment and credential attainment of low income, students of color, students with disabilities and students from rural areas. Encourage similar practices which have already proven to work (Colorado School Counselor Corps Grant Program, GEAR UP and COSI are good examples).
  • Create new incremental credentials that recognize knowledge and skills developed along the degree pathway.
  • CDHE should work with college academic advisors to assist in training and designing student pathways, identify student pain points and solutions, and inform policy related to student success.
  • CDHE must continue to work with institutions of higher education, CCHE, K-12 partners, and statewide leadership to intentionally remove structural barriers, providing students with the specific supports they need to succeed.

Click here to further explore this report