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Pathways to Prosperity Seeks to Redefine American Education System

During a Pathways to Prosperity conference held at Cisco's headquarters in Silicon Valley last month, 140 business, education, and nonprofit-organization leaders came together, not to discuss the newest technologies, but to contemplate ways to improve the education of young adults. Among the speakers were U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, Senior Lecturer Ronald Ferguson, and many prominent regional leaders. The big question on many of their minds: How can America produce more young adults who are prepared and properly educated to find fulfilling jobs and lead successful lives?

As the United States falls behind many other nations in high school and college graduation rates, the American education system needs a major overhaul, according to Pathways to Prosperity Director William Symonds. Led by Academic Dean Robert Schwartz and Ferguson, the Pathways to Prosperity project launched in late 2008 to explore promising solutions to these immense challenges, including developing a range of "multiple pathways" to help more adolescents successfully complete the journey to entering the adult workforce.

At the center of the problem today, argues Symonds, is an out-of-date U.S. education system. "If you are going to solve the problem, it requires systemic change," he says.

The "one size fits all" model that characterizes American education typically encourages students to earn bachelor's degrees, even though today, as Symonds points out, the percentage of Americans who actually earn bachelor's degrees by age 27 is still quite small -- only 30 percent. Meanwhile, 42 percent of the nation's 27-year-olds have no more than a high school degree.

This doesn't mean that young adults should no longer be encouraged to earn advanced degrees. In fact, Symonds says it is quite the opposite. As the labor market changes in the 21st century, the number of jobs open to young adults with only high school degrees is shrinking. In the future, most young adults will need post-secondary education in order to find good-paying jobs. However, millions of so-called "middle skill jobs" will require something less than a bachelor's degree. "This suggests we need to change the way we think about education," Symonds says. "College for All should not mean a B.A. for All."

Instead Symonds stressed the importance of building a high-quality American education system that values alternatives to earning a bachelor's degree, such as earning an associate's degree or attending a certificate program after high school.

At the heart of the project is discovering new ways for the system to help prepare young adults for the workforce. The business community offers rich opportunities for engagement in learning and creating realistic job aspirations for young adults, Symonds says. "The business community is more aware of this [issue] than anybody. They are complaining that many job applicants don't have the skills to succeed." Meanwhile, there is extensive evidence that apprenticeships and other forms of work-based learning can be extremely effective in both engaging young adults, and equipping them with these skills.

For this reason, the project has made one of its principles to engage the business community in what Symonds describes as a "societal problem" that cannot be fixed solely by educators. At the core of the project is building collaborations among schools, businesses, and nonprofit organizations as a means to get everyone working together. So far, the initiative is being received with much success. To date, the project has launched pilot efforts in Boston, the state of Illinois, and most recently Silicon Valley, Calif., to help mobilize leaders to improve the pathways in their regions. In Illinois, the project has been working with the Illinois Business Roundtable and state education leaders on developing and scaling up high-quality forms of career and technical education. In Boston, the project is now exploring convening a national conference on developing pathways to careers in healthcare. And in Silicon Valley, the January conference is expected to lead to a collaborative effort to better prepare more young adults. The ultimate hope, Symonds says, is that the lessons learned in developing these collaborations can be shared with other communities across the country.

For more information about the Pathways to Prosperity Project, please contact Symonds at


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