The pandemic disrupted the “when I grow up” dreams of too many students, leaving fewer prepared for education and training after high school.
An alarming number are now choosing not to enroll in higher education because they question its value, even though data clearly shows that a high school diploma is no longer sufficient currency for young people.
That’s why it is once again time for a major evolution in how we think about U.S. education. If we want to address the challenges and inequities faced by students and the ongoing needs of employers and communities, we must deliver on a concept that has gained substantial momentum in recent years: education-to-workforce pathways.
Delivering on the promise of pathways means supporting every student with individualized college and career advising, expanding curricular options to include instruction in the skills needed in fast-growing industries and providing opportunities for earning college credit and industry credentials in high school.
It will also involve offering work-based learning experiences that build transferable skills and professional networks and vetting programs with employers and colleges.
Pathways are a way of connecting the dots among K-12, higher education and career training in a smooth continuum, rather than treating them as three separate systems. Pathways help students and families navigate complex systems and figure out how to get the skills they need for the jobs and the lives they want.
This means aligning educational experiences in and out of the classroom, so they are structured in pursuit of that end goal.
Most students enter high school without a clear understanding of what they need to be prepared for life after graduation. They may not realize how the decisions they make — in choosing their classes, for example — could accelerate or derail them on their journeys.
Every student deserves access to quality pathways providing mentorship, engaging and relevant academic learning and meaningful work-based experiences along the way. Quality pathways address the needs of the student who dreams of becoming a nurse, the student who wants to land a well-paying launch-pad occupation in advanced manufacturing as soon as possible after graduation and the student with an eye on a career that requires an advanced degree. Pathways do not narrow students’ choices; they greatly expand them and help put dreams within reach.
Delivering on the promise of education means delivering on the promise of pathways. It’s time to make sure that all students — regardless of where they live, their race, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic circumstances — can access and succeed in the pathway of their choice.
Some states and local communities have embraced the promise of building education-to-workforce pathways and have done great work to bring those opportunities to more students. In these places, historical divisions between K-12 school districts, two- and four-year colleges and employers have begun to dissolve.
They are working together to build clear routes for all students as they move through education and into careers. Rhode Island’s PrepareRI initiative, for example, includes paid internships alongside academic and technical skills training for high school students in high-demand career fields.
Indiana has smoothed transitions from K-12 to higher education to good jobs with its Next Level career and technical education pathways in a wide range of in-demand fields, including advanced manufacturing, health sciences and information technology.
It is once again time for a major evolution in how we think about U.S. education.
Colorado is promoting youth apprenticeships as a means of accelerating the journey from classrooms to credentials to careers in high-wage jobs.
Tennessee has made a historic investment of $500 million to bring innovative pathways models to every public high school and middle school in the state.
Pathways efforts in places like these are leading to vibrant career options that provide economic opportunity and upward mobility for more students. But as it stands now, too many students — particularly Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds — do not have access to quality educational pathways.
This gap widens inequities and leaves the workforce without well-prepared and diverse talent.
We can do better. And for the sake of our students and our communities, we must do better.
Fortunately, there is reason to be hopeful. In a field that can be rife with stark ideological and philosophical differences, a new pathways coalition, LAUNCH, has formed. Eleven states and over 20 communities have joined five national organizations — Advance CTE, Education Strategy Group, ExcelinEd, Jobs for the Future, and New America — and six foundations to help scale high-quality pathways and build momentum for this work across the nation.
Through LAUNCH, teams of legislative, K-12, higher education and workforce leaders will be deeply analyzing existing education systems to identify barriers for students. They’ll also come up with ways to help students persist and complete high-quality pathways.
Success will be measured not only by how many pathways are put in place, but also by their accessibility to a diverse range of students. Each team will be building pathways specific to their local economy, with the collective potential to influence education systems across the country.
Since the movement to make school mandatory and free for children under age 18 began in the 1800s, the American education system has repeatedly shifted and evolved, with varying degrees of success, especially for marginalized learners.
Today, every student deserves a clear pathway to a bright future, with preparation for education and training after high school. Students deserve to reach their potential in fulfilling careers that can support themselves and their families.
This is a vision and an approach that we must all get behind, and it’s one that we can (and must) make a reality; we owe it to our students and to our nation.
Matt Gandal is the president and CEO of Education Strategy Group, an organization working with states and communities across the country to build stronger education systems and expand economic mobility.
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