State education leaders in both K-12 and higher education in Kansas want to line up school districts’ and colleges’ spring breaks to fall in the same week, with the goal of allowing more students to take college credits while in high school.
The Kansas State Board of Education held a virtual joint meeting with the Kansas Board of Regents on Wednesday to discuss aligning the springs breaks, among other ways to coordinate to help more Kansas high school students achieve some sort of post-high school success.
Education officials at both the K-12 and higher education levels said that by aligning spring breaks, schools would be able to reduce any barriers that students might have in enrolling in dual and concurrent credit courses.
To be clear, the proposal is unrelated to the COVID-19 schedule shifts schools have seen this year, and any changes wouldn’t take place this year but would potentially start in the 2021-2022 school year.
Research shows that Kansas’ economy needs 75% of its high school students to have some sort of post-secondary education or training, whether it be degrees from universities or certificates from the technical and community colleges. But right now, only about 50% of Kansans continue their education after high school, state commissioner of education Randy Watson said.
While schools are slowly boosting that rate by a couple of percentage points every year, Watson said that isn’t fast enough, and even though aligning spring breaks would be a small step toward that 75% goal, he imagines other steps would follow.
"That’s woefully 25% short, and we’re making about a percent to 2% gain a year," he said. "Do the math on that — that’s too slow. How do we accelerate that when the economy today in Kansas, you go out to hire someone and you’re looking for someone with skilled labor?"
Regents president Blake Flanders said that normally, such changes as aligning spring breaks require years to discuss and implement, since the process involves committees and input from various stakeholders.
But in a year when schools were able to change their schedules within a week because of COVID-19, higher education institutions have proven they can change quickly when needed, he said.
"I think what we’ve found from just this year, when our schedules are really misaligned, is that schedules matter if we’re going to bring our systems together," he said.
Creating uniform schedules will be easier at the college level since Regents institutions come to the board to approve their schedules. That isn’t the case at the K-12 level, where each school district sets its own schedule.
Additionally, board of education member Deena Horst cautioned that districts often work their schedules around their communities’ needs, and those schedules may differ from a universal spring break. She said it will take some work to get community buy-in.
However, Watson said he anticipates at least 90% of superintendents will work to get their districts aligned with any statewide spring break, with gradual, eventual compliance by all districts following a board recommendation.
Following both boards’ consensus, education officials will return to the board by the end of the calendar year with specific recommendations on how to implement a statewide spring break.
The boards also discussed how to better market and integrate ksdegreestats.org — a useful but little known Regents website that shares financial information on each of the degrees offered by Regents institutions — into high school curricula.
In addition to brief descriptions of each degree, the website also includes financial statistics on such items as the annual cost of the degrees, estimated earnings and potential funding sources for getting the degrees. The website also allows users to calculate how much time and money they will need to spend to obtain each degree.
Regents and higher education staff noted that the website relies on Kansas-specific data, as reported by each of the colleges and universities, rather than nationalized data.
However, members of both boards said that while they considered the website to be extremely useful, few high schoolers actually use the website in deciding where to go after high school. The boards’ discussion centered around how to better pull the website into high school classes, as well as how to avoid giving students "sticker shock" when they see the full price of a degree.
Watkins said most high school financial literacy classes focus on such items as mortgages or health insurance, which college students and young adults typically don’t have to deal with until later in their 20s. But by tying the website into those classes, students will be better able to apply those financial literacy skills in deciding where to attend college.
"Most students — in their senior year, and this is first-generation, minority students — look at that sticker price and think there’s no way their family can afford that," Watkins said. "Tying financial literacy into how you go into post-secondary and what’s the payoff is immediate to them and gives them a start of how to use financial literacy in their real world, instead of, ’let me help you shop for health insurance,’ which you may not have yet, or a mortgage or some of those things."
The boards also discussed ways to generally boost the number of students taking college credits while in high school, such as pursuing state funding for paying those students’ tuition costs while in high school.
Between 2014 and 2019, the number of Kansas high schoolers who took at least one college-level course through a district and college partnership surged 36.9% to 18,700 students. While officials expect that number to drop slightly this year because of the pandemic, schools are looking to continue that growth in the coming years.