More complex than college or bust:
The case for differentiated career pathways
Dexter works as a truck driver in a long haul logistics company. He is 27 and just had his second child in Dallas, Texas. He finished — barely — high school in New Orleans almost ten years ago having committed to Delgado, one of the local community colleges, though he ended up only attending a few classes. He had agreed to his counselor’s plan for him. He hadn’t mentioned at the end of senior year that he didn’t really feel like going to college, that he was tired, and that he wanted to make money. Since he hadn’t gotten into the more selective colleges, his high school guidance counselor said in their only meeting that he should attend Delgado Community College and consider transferring from the two-year to a four-year institution. She hadn’t mentioned that he could pursue work straight out of high school or that there were several other shorter term, career-aligned training opportunities that might meet his goals to start earning quickly while still building skills. She knew less about those options and believed college would set him up best for success.
Unfortunately Dexter’s path led to stop-out after stop-out of various institutions that collected his money but didn’t guide or graduate him. He fell into a job in logistics almost six years later with some college coursework, no degree, substantial debt, and lost wage earning years. Dexter felt disoriented and frustrated, and it took him time, lots of effort, and some luck to eventually stumble upon a viable employer and figure out a schedule that would work for him.
Regrettably Dexter’s experience is not the exception, but the norm, in a world where we sell the promise of a degree and its payoff of economic mobility. We do it because there are people for whom that story is true, but we fail to acknowledge the riskiness of that plan. The reality is that the soaring cost of higher education and weak yield between many degrees and a stable, well-paid job makes pursuit of a four-year degree an unreliable path to economic stability for many constituents.
In K12 education, we struggle to reconcile our idealism with reality. All stakeholders — parents, teachers, counselors, advocates — want the best for kids. We want to recommend the most aspirational and rigorous plans for all children, but doing so often means pushing four-year college while failing to recognize the racial and class-based barriers many students will face, and the quagmire created by student debt and lack of degree completion. Navigating life, let alone our complex educational and employment systems, requires dexterity and thoughtfulness that often mean less linear options than college straight out of high school.
Schools, parents, communities, and advisors need to stop overselling the illusion that a four-year degree is the only respectable path. We need to have real conversations with young people in which they feel all paths toward financial stability are prestigious and respectable, and become better informed about the myriad options between graduating high school and joining the workforce. Shame breeds silence, meaning right now the young adults — high school and college students, and alumni of each — who have internalized through explicit and implicit signals that they’ve taken the less prestigious path are the ones who need the most guidance and are the least likely to ask for it. Continuing to allow for internalized shame means we lose the next generation of capable and tenacious leaders. We cannot afford to let that happen.
Revamping career and college pathway guidance and expanding options for young people is not easy. But many pioneering organizations are already doing it.
We’ve been honored to support and work alongside many institutions that have taken the plunge and led the charge even amidst the last few years of crisis. It’s now time for others to learn from them, for more school operators and local nonprofits to emulate them, and for policymakers and funders to incentivize this kind of operator risk taking.
Da Vinci Schools is a network of public high schools in greater Los Angeles with project based learning, real world experiences, and student-driven practices. Not only did Da Vinci start a postsecondary program in-house — online college with in-person coaching to increase college affordability and persistence–, but they expanded to career training opportunities when they realized the college pathway was necessary but not sufficient. Now it’s building out healthcare and IT training programs for current high school seniors and alumni that will evolve into a comprehensive career center connected to proximate employers.
Comp Sci High is a single-site public high school in the Bronx, NY, that focuses on computer science and career connected learning. Since its inception it has been unapologetic about economic access and wealth creation for its students and graduates. It recognized early on that supporting all kids meant providing early career training, enabling students to make informed decisions to pursue training and job-connected learning or college in and after high school. The institution has begun with HVAC and medical assisting training programs with employer connectivity for students seeking more accelerated paths to work.
KIPP is a national network of 250 public schools across the country that is committed to equity and access. To expand its postsecondary support to students and alumni, it has created a robust training program and set of career planning tools for regional leaders and counselors. It is committed to honoring the aspirations of all students by providing clear next steps, extensive training options, and labor market data that align with their needs. This programming will scale to all of its institutions in the next two years and presents a large shift from a “college for all” mentality to one in which students are equipped with more robust navigating skills and comprehensive options in training and work.
WGU is a national online university that provides onramps for individuals of all ages to pursue postsecondary degrees, offering options like cybersecurity that increase access to high wage earning careers through training for people whose lives require more flexibility. It spun out a program called Academy that provides soft- and hard-skills training so that more young people across the country can start its program early and build a more reliable bridge to college onboarding and completion.
The Opportunity Trust is an educational nonprofit that wields resources for public schools in St. Louis. It is building out a set of high school career-aligned complements for the schools it serves that includes personal and career coaching, career development, credential training, and relationships with employers.
Arete Rising is a southern-California based nonprofit startup dedicated to career navigation for high school students and young adults. Its forthcoming altPath tool helps young people understand how to connect their passion to career paths, explore training options, and evaluate tradeoffs to empower them to make choices with increased information and visibility.
These early adopters have led the way, seeding the national landscape with examples of what it means to set students and alumni up for success. They have done so through providing personalized coaching to their students on a variety of career paths and providing labor market information, real skills training, and employment opportunities in-house or lined up externally to optimize upward mobility for the young people who are a part of their programs.
The space is early, in the process of collecting longitudinal outcomes data like participation and persistence, placement, employment retention and median income, all of which colleges often have ignored to date. Policy and funding support with resources and visibility will allow for more scale, sustainability, and results for existing programs and better incentives for new ones. This will encourage schools across the country to take risks to support all young people so that their immediate needs don’t end up crowding out their dreams.
We need to improve the way we coach young people, especially those who are most nervous to raise their hand. They need more visibility, support, and options. Those who coach them need to maintain their expertise and present multiple pathways toward continued learning and a viable career. They need to articulate that career pathways are critical for all students, and training next steps are inclusive of but not limited to college. Then they need to offer some of these options in-house to build momentum and minimize the chances kids fall through the cracks.
There need be no distinction between “college kids” and “career kids,” it’s both and. We all need long-term career plans with short-term action steps, regardless of stage of life, whether the next step we take is 2- or 4-year college, a job, or a credentialed training program. Our nation has also changed, and it rewards a myriad of paths more often than it used to.
Schools have begun to engage with nuance and complexity in coaching students, though the pandemic has slowed progress. Schools have been in a state of survival, and so it’s taken a bit longer for career training to take hold. It is an emerging market with increasing momentum.
Students need to feel that creating and navigating career plans informed by aspirations and needs is normal. Those who support them need more visibility, resources, and guidance. Educational institutions need resources to offer more career coaching and training opportunities to students. Sector coordination between schools and companies will ultimately allow for real economic access and long-term stability for all people.
Our country has an opportunity to reemerge from the pandemic with new models and opportunities for young people. Let’s build back the right way, with the minds, talents and skills of the next generation of leaders at the forefront. Dexter’s younger brother is ready.
Are you an individual or institution in education or workforce? Here are resources to bolster your toolkit:
Guides for how to act on the need:
Those who seek to partner with schools: The Arena | Workforce Partners Playbook
Anyone seeking to be innovative and create social impact: The Arena | Social Entrepreneurship Playbook
How to make the case for economic mobility and career pathways: