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2014 July 22 - 09:55 am

Getting Early Traction

Initiative Builds Bridges Between High Schools and Colleges

Behind the recent sunny reports that the nation’s unemployment rate has dropped to 6.1 percent is a darker reality: the unemployment rate for young people — those aged 16 to 24 — remains about twice that of older workers.

Among 2012 high school graduates who did not enroll in college the following year, just 45 percent were able to find work of any kind two years later, and only half of the positions were full-time jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For low-income and minority groups, the picture is even worse: among high school dropouts aged 16-19, only about 30 percent are employed. In October 2012, only 5 percent of African Americans male graduates of the Class of 2012 looking for full-time work had found it, statistics show.

The numbers are continuation of a long term trend. The BLS has reported that the youth employment rate has plummeted over the past 15 years to the lowest level since the 1930s.

Now, an effort being led by Jobs for the Future is promoting reforms in eight states aimed at helping young people gain traction on a pathway to college or careers. Those states — California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Ohio and Tennessee — are part of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, which aims to help young people finish high school, earn a post-secondary credential with labor-market value and get started in a high-demand career.

The initiative connects high schools with community colleges and industry certification programs in sectors of the economy that are projected to grow rapidly in the coming years, such as information technology, health care and advanced manufacturing Started in 2012, the network seeks to connect the last two years of high school with the first two years of a post-secondary education and career training in fields experiencing shortages of qualified employees.

The states are using existing and expanded funding to strengthen career and technical education through efforts such as early college high schools and career academies.

Much of the money being leveraged by states comes from the Obama administration’s $2 billion Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grant Program.

“The states we are working with are committed to destroying once and for all the old notion that some kids need to be prepared for college while others are being prepared for careers,” said Robert Schwartz, professor emeritus the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a leader of the network’s efforts. “The Pathways Network is especially focused on helping states build out robust career pathways that span grades 9-14 and provide young people with a strong academic foundation and a solid core of technical skills that can enable them to get started in a high-demand, high-growth field.”

A report recently issued by JFF, a Boston-based non-profit that works to expand the college and career prospects of low-income youth and adults across 25 states, detailed some of the reforms states have undertaken to improve career pathways. JFF provides real-time data on regional jobs and economies that helps policymakers and educators build pathways.

Some 25 regional initiatives are under way. They include a wide range of program models such as the redesign of career and technical courses, business and education partnerships and early college high schools.

Among steps taken since the Pathways project launched two years ago are:

• California has created a $500 million Career Pathways Trust that invests in regional collaborations involving employers, community colleges and high schools to support career training programs.

• Tennessee launched its Tennessee Promise initiative, through which high school graduates can attend a community college or a technical college for free for two years. The long-term goal is for 500,000 additional Tennessee residents to obtain an associate degree or a certificate.

• Massachusetts used a $4.8 million federal grant to fund regional collaboratives of high schools, community colleges and employers to build pathways programs for grades 9-14.

“Through the initiative, we are creating opportunities for students to learn and acquire the necessary skills so they can transition smoothly from high school into a two year technical program, and then get a job or pursue a bachelor’s degree,” said Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

The JFF report documents a growing disconnect between the nation’s education system and its economy, and said that both educators and employers share the blame.

“The skills gap means one thing to employers and something else to educators,” the report says. “Employers claim that high schools and community college graduates arrive ill-prepared for the workplace and with weak skills, while educators claim that without more willingness to partner in education and training designs and to open doors so young people can gain work experience, employers won’t get what they need.

“Until these two constituents can meet in the middle, they will continue to miscommunicate about what needs to happen next.”

To overcome those and other obstacles, each state in the network works to:

• Get commitments from employers, particularly in high growth sectors, to engage with educators in building work based learning experience and provide input on curriculum development and effectiveness.

• Provide opportunities for students who traditionally would not be college bound to earn 12 college credits in high school and start on a career pathway.

• Strengthen groups that connect high schools, employers and community colleges to make available more work-based learning opportunities.

“If we don’t provide opportunities for work-based learning, internships, employment, mentoring, obtaining stackable credentials, use of technology and industry resources for teacher-employer participation in the shaping of curriculum, then the ‘career’ part of ‘college and career readiness’ will not be fully realized,” said Miguel del Valle, chairman of the Illinois P-20 Council.

The states are also zeroing in on specific career fields that hold promise for young people seeking entry-level jobs with a two year degree: health care, information technology and computer science and advanced manufacturing.

Each field presents educators with its own set of challenges. In health care, for example, there is little awareness among high school students and teachers that nursing is only one option of many in the allied health fields. Associate degrees also qualify students to work as physical therapy assistants, medical laboratory technicians, radiological technicians along with the emerging field of health informatics.

In the high information technology and computer science, high schools have struggled to expand offerings beyond basic coursework such as teaching PowerPoint or word processing. Most schools aren’t equipped to teach introductory computer science or information technology. The National Science Foundation has reported that only 19 percent of American high school students take an introductory computer science course.

JFF hopes that its report will prod other states into adopting the most successful career and technical education programs. Educators and policymakers are also being encouraged to encourage better coordination among the K-12, post secondary and workforce training systems. States could benefit by bolstering their early college high schools so that disadvantaged students can graduate from high school while making progress toward a college degree.

“The country simply cannot afford not to come up with new approaches to career education and workforce development,” the report concluded. “These are critical both for the healthy development of the nation’s younger generations and for the overall vitality of the U.S. economy and society.”

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