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From Red States & Blue, Collaborating to Create Pathways to Future for Students

Herdman: Across the political divide, there is agreement on helping young people launch into the next phase of their lives

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As kids don their backpacks to go back to school, the rhetoric of the midterm elections and associated culture wars is rising. The country can’t agree on how to talk about race, sexuality, even history. Even in the midst of COVID, Americans can’t agree on when young people should wear a mask or attend school in person. However, there is agreement on helping young people launch into the next phase of their lives. This is a game changer for the current generation and a powerful opportunity for the nation.

While the divides seem stark between red states and blue, policy leaders and practitioners from Texas to Tennessee and California to Colorado are collaborating to create innovative career pathways for students. 

In my home state of Delaware, we’re constantly learning from those other states. John Fitzpatrick, executive director of Educate Texas, serves on the board at my nonprofit, Rodel, and has urged the nation to rethink early college high schools and the expansion of Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-Tech), in which students earn credit toward an associate degree and hands-on work experience in high-demand, high-wage careers. I serve as an adviser to some exciting work that Colorado Succeeds is leading called Path 4Ward, in collaboration with the Colorado Department of Higher Education. This initiative recognizes that not all students want or need to graduate high school in four years and provides scholarships for college courses and high-demand certificate programs. More formally, the nonprofit skill-building organization Jobs for the Future has created Pathways to Prosperity Network, in which states across the nation, from blue California to red Tennessee, learn with, and from, one another.  

What are the products of these collaborations? Students gaining meaningful work experience through internships, apprenticeships and completed college coursework or certifications before they’re 18. These pathways — a combination of targeted in-school curriculum and outside, real-world experiences — are aligned with broad sectors like health care or information technology. For example, as fintech is big in my state, a new LLC under Rodel called the Delaware IT Industry Council is building stronger connections among employers, training providers and high schools. The work across sectors in Delaware is so popular that it has grown from 27 students in 2015, to over 26,000, or more than half of the state’s high schoolers, in 2022. 

These efforts include traditional vocational education but are meant for all kids, regardless of what they want to do after high school. Pathways are not about locking a young person into a career choice at age 14; rather, about helping them make better-informed choices. But as the hard lines between school and work soften — what Jobs for the Future calls the big blur — career exploration is starting earlier and is expanding into middle school.

This reflects a historic shift. In 1910, about 7% of Americans had a high school diploma. By 1940, that figure approached 70%, giving the U.S. the best-educated workforce in the world for much of the 20th century. But many countries have caught up or surpassed us, and a high school diploma isn’t enough anymore. Economists project that by 2027, 70% of family-sustaining careers will require a degree or certification beyond high school. 

Even before the pandemic, the pathways idea was gaining steam. Young people want agency over when, how, what and where they learn. Pathways give them a chance to learn important people skills, and to figure out what they want to do (and don’t want to do).  

Pathways make sense to parents as well. Given the cost of college, families like the idea of their kids getting up to 15 college credits while still in high school and making sound postsecondary decisions to avoid dropping out with massive debt.  

Building seamless connections among business, high schools and colleges helps young people and their parents struggling to navigate smart postsecondary decisions, and it helps employers struggling to find talent. And a well-built pathway for an 18-year-old can also work for a 48-year-old looking to update needed work skills. It’s a policy two-fer.

What to do with this common ground? At the federal level, policymakers can set some North Stars. For example, what would it take to increase apprenticeships tenfold? There are only 440,000 registered apprentices in the U.S. today. If America created as many apprenticeships as a share of its labor force as England, Australia and Canada, that number would climb to around 4 million

Similarly, although a growing number of good jobs do not require a four-year degree, federal funds tend to heavily favor bachelor’s degree attainment over other training models. Deepening investments in one- and two-year certification and degree programs would not only even the playing field for new entrants, but aid millions of mid-career professionals. The upcoming reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act presents an opportunity to remedy this.

At the state level, governors and legislatures have a unique opportunity to not only advance an issue that’s good for students and their states, but for the country. Leveraging 50 state-level experiments could create a national conversation to jump-start America’s reinvention and add to the international discourse on how to provide all young people with a fair shot at a meaningful career and a good life.

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