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A century ago, a bright and talented generation struggled to recover from the ravages of World War I. Their challenges were summarized in the epigraph to Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, “The Sun Also Rises”:“You are all a lost generation.”

Now, nearly a century later, many fear we are creating another lost generation. Even before the pandemic, many students — especially those from historically underserved groups — were leaving high school unprepared for the educational demands of good jobs and too few were completing degrees. Now, at a time when almost all good-paying jobs require education beyond high school, there are significant declines in college enrollment.

The National Student Clearinghouse reports a 13 percent decline in freshman enrollment since 2019, including a 32 percent decline for Black students and a 20 percent decline for Latinx students in public two-year colleges. 

Congress may just find a way to prevent another lost generation.

Sadly, these trends will likely continue. The number of high school seniors applying for federal financial aid is down by 270,000 since 2019, with the greatest declines among students from high-poverty high schools and from high schools serving large concentrations of students of color. This does not bode well for the future of a country that requires a well-educated citizenry.

As Congress narrows the scope of President Biden’s social spending bill, the Build Back Better Act, it is vital to maintain its proposed investments in college retention and completion grants, as well as community college and industry partnership grants. States and colleges must have the funding and flexibility to expand the numbers of dual enrollment and early college high schools, where students earn college credit (up to an associate degree) before graduating high school.

Related: Research on early college high schools indicates they may pay for themselves in the long run

Early college works. Two independent, randomized controlled trials showed that low-income students in early college high schools were as much as three times as likely to complete a postsecondary degree than students assigned to control groups.

Massachusetts (where one of us is chair of the board of higher education) is one of several states that have robust programs driving early college expansion. In just four years, 31 programs across the state have embraced the innovation, and students from them are showing higher levels of matriculation and persistence in college. To date, early college efforts in Massachusetts have taken place despite a lack of federal support, which stems from an outdated federal law that prohibits the giving of Pell Grants to low-income students who take college courses while still in high school. With federal support, we could exponentially expand early college opportunities in Massachusetts and nationwide.

The Build Back Better Act is an important opportunity for Congress to reverse recent trends and move more students to and through higher education. By doing so, Congress may just find a way to prevent another lost generation.

The president’s Build Back Better framework and the House bill include $500 million for states and higher education institutions to invest in college retention and completion, along with $4.9 billion for partnerships between community colleges and industry.

We are disappointed that free community college will not be included in the Build Back Better Act, and we would still like to see a much larger investment in college retention and completion. However, the perfect need not be the enemy of the good.

Related: OPINION: Free community college was never going to be enough

Today, 80 percent of good-paying jobs require postsecondary education, yet less than 40 percent  of 12th graders are prepared for college-level reading and math. Dual enrollment and early college are evidence-based strategies that position students for success in both postsecondary education and the workforce.

It is far past time for our nation to make major investments in evidence-based strategies to increase college completion. Our current system is outdated and ineffective. The disconnect between high school and higher education perpetuates the disconnect between employer demands and the ability of our students to meet those demands.

In the long run, we need federal leadership to rethink the relationship between high school and higher education. That includes making high school students eligible for Pell Grants, along with free community college.

Let’s follow the evidence by investing in opportunities for students to earn college credit before they graduate from high school.

Deborah Delisle is president and CEO of All4Ed (formerly the Alliance for Excellent Education) and former assistant secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Chris Gabrieli is chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education and a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

This story about early college and Build Back Better was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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