Should High Schools Require a Post-Graduation Plan?

Approximately 40 percent of students in a Chicago public school graduate without an idea of what they’ll do next. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to change that. His idea? Help students create a plan and stick to it.

Emanuel proposed the new graduation requirements, approved by the school board this summer, to help students transition to their lives after high school. Starting in 2020, Emanuel’s plan, called “Learn. Plan. Succeed,” requires students to have a job offer or a letter of acceptance to college, a trade apprenticeship, a job-training program, the military, or a gap year program in order to earn their diploma.

“We are going to help kids have a plan, because they need it to succeed,” Emanuel told The Washington Post. “You cannot have kids think that 12th grade is done.”

The Chicago public school system is the third largest in the United States, with 381,000 students in 652 schools, and an annual graduating class over 20,000. These graduates are at an inflection point in their lives. For the first time, they have the legal and social authority to make life-changing decisions.

On average, those who go to college, and subsequently graduate, will get better jobs, earn more money, spend less time unemployed, and live longer and healthier lives than those who do not.

College is not the only—or even necessarily the best—option, however. Vocational school and the skilled trades can lead to well-paying and stable careers. Employment and apprenticeships allow high-school graduates to earn money immediately while learning on the job. The military provides education, job security, and the opportunity to climb the ranks while serving your country.

The important thing isn’t necessarily what students do when they graduate, but rather that they do something that continues personal and professional development well into their adult lives.

Evidence from behavioral science suggests that requiring a post-graduation plan from high-school seniors could help improve post-graduation outcomes.

A similar requirement has been shown to work at Houston’s YES Prep Public Schools, which serves 12,000 students, of which 84 percent are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Seniors at YES Prep must have a college acceptance letter to graduate. The system has achieved a 90 percent graduation rate, suggesting that Emanuel’s plan has the potential to succeed.

Beginning after kindergarten, the default option for students when the school year ends in June is to come right back in September. The certainty of the next grade suddenly ends 12 years later upon graduating from high school. While we can assume that most seniors have good intentions for their lives after high school, intentions don’t necessarily materialize without a plan of action.

Evidence from behavioral science suggests that requiring a post-graduation plan from high-school seniors could help improve post-graduation outcomes.

Prompting people to plan has been shown to help people achieve a number of goals, including exercising and recycling more, smoking and procrastinating less, getting out to vote, and following through on vaccination appointments.

Research in education shows similar potential to help students follow through. In one study, students from the University of Munich were asked to write a report, which they would submit after the holidays, about how they celebrated Christmas Eve. Half of the participants were also asked to create an implementation plan, detailing when and where during the holidays they would actually write the report. Those who had formed implementation intentions were twice as likely to have completed the report, and 83 percent of them wrote the report on the day that they intended to.

Another successful intervention was aimed at decreasing “summer melt”—students who in the spring are bound for college but in the fall fail to enroll. Randomly selected high-school graduates in Texas and Massachusetts were sent 10 text messages throughout the summer with personalized information on pre-enrollment tasks. The text messages, which included planning prompts, increased the rate of college enrollment for students in places where existing college support systems were less accessible. This suggests that providing planning supports, where it’s limited or absent, can help students get to college.

By making high-value post-graduation activities the default, the graduation requirement also helps level the psychological playing field for high- and low-income students. The children of college-educated parents benefit from a childhood’s worth of social pressure and educational support that makes high-value post-secondary activities, like going to college, the default. Youth from low-income families are considerably less likely to receive this kind of encouragement from their parents. This happens for a variety of reasons, including the parents’ belief that they won’t be able to help their child or that they’re not allowed to help with the admissions process. With a graduation requirement, all students grow up knowing that they have to plan for life after high school.

At its best, the new policy makes explicit what we hope our teachers and schools are doing: helping our children plan for a future where they can grow personally and professionally—and a future they’re excited about.

While it provides the impetus to plan, “Learn. Plan. Succeed” does not replace the informational and emotional support necessary to effectively plan for life after high school. Providing that support to Chicago’s students, of which more than 80 percent come from an economically disadvantaged background, is crucial if the policy is to succeed. Before the plan is implemented in 2020, Emanuel must follow up with increased funding for career counseling services, college bridging programs, and job placements—or risk the policy backfiring on the most disadvantaged students.

YES Prep is known for the depth of their academic and counseling support services, and has garnered awards from US News & World Report and The Washington Post for college readiness. Similarly, a big part of the summer melt study’s success was that the reminder text messages offered support to students who needed help. Chicago public schools will have to support students if they want to recreate these successes.

Janice Jackson, Chicago’s chief education officer, says that the requirement won’t hold students who have earned their diplomas back from graduating because it pushes principals, counselors, and teachers to ensure that these students have a plan. For any high school, the graduation rate is the principle metric of success, so there is a large incentive for school leaders to help students meet the requirement. However, it remains to be seen whether the requirement might have unintended negative consequences. For instance, it might lead teachers and administrators to push easily attainable post-graduation plans that ensure students graduate but have low value to students’ futures.

Once the policy is implemented, Chicago will need to answer several key questions. What percentage of students follow through on their plans? Do post-graduation outcomes improve for the most disadvantaged students, the population that this policy is designed to help? If so, by how much? And what combination of planning and support services helps students the most?

Evidence on the effectiveness of planning suggests that Emanuel’s policy is worth a shot. At its best, the new policy makes explicit what we hope our teachers and schools are doing: helping our children prepare for a future where they can grow personally and professionally—and a future they’re excited about.