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Rethinking the Connection Between K-12, Careers and Degrees

Bruno V. Manno is senior adviser to the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program.

Labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies calculates that since the pandemic began, entry hiring for college grads decreased 45 percent. That shock is forcing many to question the belief that a four-year college degree is the key pathway to social and economic mobility and a prosperous life, enshrined in the K-12 mantra “college for all.” Conversely, it has further opened the door to replacing the “bachelor’s degree or bust” mentality with a broader approach to understanding opportunity.

While not abandoning the degree pathway, the new opportunity action plan creates more specialized skills-based pathways and credentials linked with employers and labor market demand. It exemplifies opportunity pluralism, or making the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic by offering many pathways to success.

Rethinking the connection between K-12, careers and degrees has support from the American public, as well as parents and young people. A Strada Education Network/Gallup survey shows seven in 10 Americans believe employers should hire job candidates with the required skills and experience, even without a college degree. Fewer than half say employers in their field do so.

A Carnegie Corporation/Gallup nationally representative survey of nearly 3,000 parents of 11- to 24-year-olds found almost half (46 percent) want more post-high school pathways programs other than the college degree pathway. As parents learn more about pathways programs, they’re more favorably disposed.

An FIL Inc. nationally representative survey of COVID-shocked public and private school parents shows two in three would call for rethinking “how we educate students, coming up with new ways to teach.” Eighty-two percent favor “work-based learning programs or apprenticeships” and 80 percent support “more vocational classes in high schools.”

Finally, more than half (52 percent) Generation Z high schoolers now say they can achieve professional success in three years or less. One in four say a four-year degree is the only route to a good job.

The essential elements of a new opportunity program are what students know (knowledge) and who they know (relationships). The goal: Ensure every American — especially those in K-12 schools — regardless of background or current condition, has multiple pathways to acquiring the knowledge and networks they need for jobs and careers, preparing them to access opportunity and a flourishing life. In short, knowledge + networks = opportunity.

Five features should guide pathways program design, creating an infrastructure for success:

Academic and technical skills and credentials. Programs teach academic and technical skills aligned with labor market needs — i.e., link supply and demand. There’s a timeline for program completion. Participants receive a recognized credential, tied to a good job.

Work and careers. Exposure to work and careers begins early in school through guest speakers and includes exploring job options through field trips. High school includes career experience via work placement and mentorships, integrated into classroom instruction. Exposure, exploration and experience connect students with adults, especially important for students in high-poverty communities.

Advising system. An advisory system avoids forced tracking into jobs based on race, ethnicity, gender or social class. This ensures that students make informed choices; address barriers such as financial assistance; and data are used to keep them progressing through the program. This fosters self-agency, so they become knowledgeable enough to choose the correct pathway.

Authentic partnerships. Employers, industry groups and other institutions must collaborate for programs to succeed. Some groups work on program issues. Others provide support by convening stakeholders or navigating work placement and support services for participants (and families). Written agreements create a management and governance structure — a civic partnership — between partners.

Supporting policies. Local, state and federal policies create a framework for program development. It includes executive orders and other directives. For example, a policy creating incentives for K-12, postsecondary institutions, labor and workforce groups to integrate funding streams enables long-term financial support for the program.

Opportunity pluralism, offering individuals multiple education, training and credentialing pathways to work and career, includes the four-year college degree. But instead of equalizing opportunity through a single pathway, the range of opportunities for individuals is broadened and deepened, making the nation’s opportunity infrastructure more pluralistic.

These pathways programs help young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self, including a broader sense of who they are as adults. Programs also provide faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers than traditional postsecondary education. Finally, they place students on a trajectory to economic and social well-being, informed citizenship and civic responsibility, laying a foundation for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity.


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