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Initiatives to Improve the Senior Year

Initiatives to improve the senior year refer to state policies and recommendations that are designed to improve the educational environment and attainment of senior year students by keeping them focused on academics during their last year of high school and by providing them with opportunities to continue their educational career.

Why does it matter?
  • The senior year of high school has long been considered a wasted year — these initiatives address that accusation.
  • Meaningful senior year projects add the "real-world" relevance to the high school curriculum that so many students express the desire for.
  • Senior year projects help students think about next steps after high school — areas of interest for postsecondary study or potential careers.
  • Allowing students to begin postsecondary coursetaking on a full-time or virtually full-time basis their last year of high school saves students (and their parents) scholarship dollars, tuition money and time to degree.

  • Highlights:
  •  Sixteen states have developed policies, programs or recommendations specifically designed to make the senior year more meaningful.
  • Two states require all students to complete a senior project. By the Class of 2012, this will increase to four states. An additional two states explicitly set forth senior projects as an option that districts may require of students.
  • Three states have specifically designed dual enrollment programs allowing students to begin attending college full-time or virtually full-time their senior year of high school.
  • Three states have scholarship programs to encourage students to finish high school in fewer than four years.
  • One state, Florida, offers a three-year high school diploma requiring students to complete fewer Carnegie units than for the standard high school diploma.
  • At least two states specify that students must enroll in a full or nearly full load of courses during their senior year.

    Other policy options help make the senior year more meaningful but are not included here, since they are addressed in other ECS 50-state policy databases. These policy options include:
  • Dual enrollment: Most states have adopted policies allowing students who meet minimum eligibility criteria to attend college courses part- or full-time for high school and postsecondary credit. Database coming in summer 2008!
  • Early college high schools: A handful of states have adopted policies allowing students to earn a high school diploma and an associate's degree or technical certification in five years (or enough college credit to enter a four-year institution as a junior). Database coming in summer 2008!
  • Increasing high school graduation requirements: A growing number of states now require students to complete a total of 24 Carnegie units (6 courses per year x 4 years) to graduate, in part to ensure that seniors are taking rigorous core courses their last year of high school. Effective with the class of 2011, Texas students following the standard ("recommended") high school curriculum will be required to complete 26 Carnegie units. A 50-state database on high school graduation requirements is available on the ECS Web site.

  • Methodology: This information was collected from state statutes, rules and regulations, and state education agencies, and will be updated as new policies and programs are enacted.

    Sources for all data points are available through this link.

    Last updated: July 22, 2008

    Research conducted by Michael Colasanti. Please contact Jennifer Dounay Zinth at 303.299.3689 or jdounay@ecs.org with comments or questions about this database. 

    Initiatives to improve the senior year
    Arizona The early graduation scholarship program offers the lesser of up to $1,250 or the actual cost of postsecondary tuition, books and fees to students who graduate from high school at least one year early. Students who graduate from high school one semester early receive the lesser up to $1,000 or the actual cost of postsecondary tuition, books and fees. Students receive the lesser of up to $750 or the actual cost of tuition, books and fees their second year of college.
    Arkansas Legislation requires all students in grades 9-12 to schedule and attend a full school day (a minimum of 350 minutes of planned instructional time).
    Florida Students may select a three-year high school graduation option with an academic or career preparatory focus, thus eliminating the senior year of high school. For both options, students must complete at least 18 specified Carnegie units and maintain a minimum grade point average as they progress toward diploma completion.
    Idaho Effective with the Class of 2012, 12th graders will be required to complete a senior year project. The project must include a research paper and an oral presentation.
    Louisiana The purpose of the Commission on High School Redesign is to develop high schools that graduate all students prepared to succeed. One problem identified by the commission is the inefficient use of time during the senior year. "Many Louisiana high schools still engage in the old practice of offering 'early afternoon release' to seniors who do not need to take a full course-load to earn enough credits for a diploma," the 2006 commission report states. "Instead of early release, high schools should offer an early start on college or advanced workplace training." The report suggests that policymakers should find ways to decrease the number of college students who have to take remedial courses by allowing interested students to take advantage of college-level courses and get a "head start" on success.
    Maine In 2003, the Maine Community College System initiated a program called "Early College for ME." The goal of the program is to increase college awareness and participation among students who are capable of succeeding in but have no plans to attend college. Students are identified for the program in their junior year and begin taking college courses during their senior year.

    The features of the program include outreach and dual enrollment options:
  • Assessment of academic readiness for college.
  • Counseling on courses students should take to meet college entrance requirements.
  • Assistance selecting early college courses.
  • Assistance with the college application and financial aid process (including help completing FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] form).
  • Financial aid ($500/semester for up to four semesters).
  • "Go to" person available once student begins early college.
  • North Carolina Effective with the Class of 2010, students following the career preparation, college technical preparation or college/university preparation courses of study must complete a senior project "developed, monitored and scored" by the district "using state-adopted rubrics..."
    Ohio Seniors to Sophomores is a dual enrollment program offering high school seniors the opportunity to enroll in a University System of Ohio institution to earn up to one year of high school and postsecondary credit at no cost to the student. In fall 2008, 49 volunteer Early Adopter districts and their postsecondary partners will begin piloting the program. Eligible seniors must have passed the Ohio Graduation Test, completed three years of English and Algebra II with a "C" or better, and score "college ready" on the institution's placement assessment.
    Oklahoma As a condition of state accreditation, schools must ensure that all students in grades 9-12 are enrolled in at least six periods (or the equivalent in block scheduling) "of rigorous academic and/or rigorous vocational courses each day[.]"
    Pennsylvania Locally established graduation standards must require all students to complete "a culminating project... to assure that students are able to apply, analyze, synthesize and evaluate information and communicate significant knowledge and understanding."
    Rhode Island The state does not mandate that all students complete a senior project. However, effective with the Class of 2008, all students must complete locally determined proficiency-based measures in addition to Carnegie units. One of the proficiency demonstration options that a district may require of all students is completion of a senior-year project.
    Tennessee Local boards are encouraged but not mandated to require all students to complete a senior project or other capstone project.
    Texas The Early High School Graduation Scholarship program offers tuition assistance to eligible students to attend public or private postsecondary institutions in the state. Students graduating from a public high school must complete either (1) a recommended or advanced diploma in no more than 41 consecutive months or (2) a recommended or advanced diploma, with at least 30 hours of college credit, in no more than 46 consecutive months. Scholarship award amounts vary depending upon the number of months a student used to complete the high school graduation requirements and the hours of postsecondary credit (none, at least 15 or at least 30) a student had earned upon high school graduation.
    Utah The state supports two scholarship programs to improve the senior year of high school:

    The Centennial scholarship program offers the lesser of $1,000 or one year's tuition to a student who completes high school at the end of grade 11 or earlier. A student who completes high school after the end of grade 11 but before the end of grade 12 receieves a proportionately lesser amount.

    The New Century scholarship program provides a scholarship to a student who completes an associate's degree with at least a 3.0 grade point average by September 1 of the year the student's class graduates from high school. The scholarship covers 75% of tuition at a state system of higher education institution (or equivalent amount at an accredited private institution in the state), for up to two years of full-time enrollment.
    Virginia Senior Year Plus, initiated by Gov. Mark Warner, offers two options to better prepare students for life after high school, while reducing the cost of college tuition and technical training. The two options are the Early College Scholars and Path to Industry Certification programs, both allowing high school students (seniors for Early College Scholars program and both juniors and seniors in Path to Industry Certification program) to begin college coursework while still in high school. Early College Scholars program is supported by the Virginia Virtual Advanced Placement School and Commonwealth College Course Collaborative, a set of 13 credit hours accepted at all participating postsecondary institutions for degree credit.

    High school seniors complete 15 units of college credit via dual enrollment, the Virginia Virtual Advanced Placement School, or Cambridge, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses at their home high schools. To participate, students must have at least a "B" average, be working toward an Advanced Studies Diploma, and complete college-level work through one of the aforementioned methods. The related Commonwealth College Course Collaborative is a set of 13 credit hours accepted at all participating postsecondary institutions for degree credit. The Path to Industry Certification Program, available to all districts and community colleges in the state, allows high school juniors and seniors who do not have plans for college to simultaneously complete high school graduation requirements and pursue technical certification. Subject to available funding, the program pays for the student's tuition up to the in-state rate, applicable community college fees, textbook costs and certification exam fees. Students also complete a career assessment of the school's choice to determine potential career interests. Participating students likewise have access to One-Stop Center employment services. Participating students and their parents, the high school principal, the high school counselor and the community college coordinator must also sign a compact clarifying the respective responsibilities of the student, parent, high school, and Virginia Community College System.
    Washington As a part of the state's minimum graduation requirements, "Each student shall complete a culminating project for graduation. The project consists of the student demonstrating both their learning competencies and preparations related to learning goals three and four. Each district shall define the process to implement this graduation requirement, including assessment criteria, in written district policy."
    West Virginia Effective with the 2008-2009 school year, all high school students must be fully enrolled in a full day of high school and/or college credit bearing courses. It is recommended that students complete a senior project to add rigor and relevance to the senior year.


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