Of the millions of American high school students who receive their diplomas this month, 70 percent will move on to college. Unfortunately, by the time they reach their mid-twenties, fewer than half of those students will earn a four-year college degree. Recent studies tell us that even among those under 25 who have earned a college degree, as many as half may be unemployed or, more typically, underemployed. For those young people with no college degree, or worse yet no high school diploma, the situation is even more dire.
In February 2011 the Pathways to Prosperity Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report challenging our excessive focus on the four-year college pathway, arguing that we need to create additional pathways that combine rigorous academics with strong technical education to equip the majority of young people with the skills and credentials to succeed in our increasingly challenging labor market. Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century hit a nerve with employers, educators, and state officials struggling with high unemployment rates, perceived skills mismatches, and the devastating effect of the financial crisis on young people.
The enormous interest generated by the Pathways report has led to the launch of the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration between the Pathways to Prosperity Project at HGSE, Jobs for the Future (JFF), and six states focused on ensuring that many more young people complete high school, attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market, and launch into a career while leaving open the prospect of further education. To accomplish this goal, participating states will deeply engage with employers and educators to build career pathways systems for high school-aged students. Each state will be led by a coalition of key public and private sector leaders committed to mobilizing and sustaining political and financial support for the agenda and addressing legislative or regulatory barriers that inhibit progress. The work will initially focus on one or two key regional labor markets within each state, but the long-term goal is to create a statewide system of career pathways that can serve a majority of students.
States that have joined together to form the Pathways to Prosperity Network are Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, North Carolina, and Tennessee. This multistate, multiyear initiative is managed by JFF and co-led by Robert Schwartz, Pathways co-author and HGSE Professor of Practice; and Nancy Hoffman, vice president and senior advisor at JFF.
“The recent adoption by most states of the Common Core State Standards represents long overdue recognition of the need for a more uniform national academic currency,” said JFF’s Hoffman. “However, the Common Core is supposed to signal college and career readiness, and ‘career’ has not gotten the attention it needs, especially given college costs and the demands of the 21st-century economy.”
“It is long past time that we broaden the range of high-quality pathways that we offer to our young people, beginning in high school,” added Schwartz. “The lessons from other countries strongly suggest that this might be the single most promising strategy for greatly increasing the percentage of young adults who earn a postsecondary degree or credential that prepares them to embark on a meaningful career.”
Participating states have engaged JFF to provide technical assistance to help them carry out this work. JFF and HGSE are seeking private funds to support the development of the network, beginning with a two-day institute at Harvard this fall for state and regional teams.
Maine Governor Paul LePage said, “In shaping a responsive workforce development system, I remain convinced that well-defined career pathways for all young people are essential to building a qualified workforce for all Maine industries.”
The Pathways to Prosperity framework includes the following elements of a pathways system:
- Employers committed to providing learning opportunities at the workplace and supporting the transition of young people into the labor market;
- Career pathways with clear structures, timelines, costs, and requirements linking and integrating high school and community college curricula and aligning both with labor market needs;
- An early and sustained career information and advising system strong enough to help students and families make informed choices about educational career paths; and
- Local or regional intermediary organizations to provide the infrastructure and support for the development of such pathways.
“Every high school graduate should find viable ways of pursuing both a career and a meaningful postsecondary degree or credential,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “To achieve this goal, we must improve our work in career and technical education. We must build strong and relevant pathways for our students. We must give students richer and better opportunities to learn from the industries that will later seek to employ them. We must ensure that the courses and counseling in high schools set them on a path to success.”
"Employers need to be heavily engaged with both educators and policymakers if we hope to put more young people to work with a credential of value,” said Jeff Mays, President of the Illinois Business Roundtable. “I truly applaud the efforts of leaders in Illinois to move this project forward.”
About Jobs for the Future
JFF aligns education with today’s high-demand careers. With its partners, JFF develops policy solutions and new pathways leading from college readiness to career advancement for struggling and low-income populations in America.