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Let’s Broaden Our Focus From ‘Go To College’ To ‘Get On A Pathway’

Matt Gandal
Article Date
October 11, 2023

The term “career pathways” used to evoke very narrow and specific imagery: shop class, vocational education and job training options for kids who weren’t going to college.

But there’s a movement happening in education to transform and modernize what that term means.

“Pathways” are no longer for the non-college bound; they are for everyone.

Until recently, students’ options for life after high school were typically viewed in very stark terms: either you went to college or you moved into a job. It’s not that simple anymore. Good jobs that pay well are no longer accessible to high school graduates. Employers in high-growth, high-wage fields generally require postsecondary credentials. That doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year degree; depending on the field, it could mean a shorter-term certificate, an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. But very few well-paying jobs are available to those with only a high school education.

This means that all students need to be on a pathway to and through college or a postsecondary training program. Many of the strongest Career Technical Education (CTE) programs (formerly referred to as vocational education) in high school these days are reflective of this reality, pairing practical skills-based education with college prep-level academics. Students in these programs are expected to continue their education or training after high school graduation, because they will need those post-high school credentials to open the door to viable careers.

It's time to think about the purposeful blending of rigorous academics and career-connected learning for all students, not just those in CTE programs.

One of the questions most frequently asked by high school students is “Why do I need to learn this?” Right now the answer is often: “Because you’ll need it to get into college.” If we were to take a page from the best CTE programs, and build more applied learning experiences into more traditional high school courses, we could engage students in much more meaningful ways. And if we could more explicitly help them to build what education leaders are now referring to as “durable skills,” we could show them how that will translate in the world of work.

By taking a universal approach to career pathways, and providing career-connected learning to all K-12 students, we could also put young people in a more informed position when choosing their postsecondary options. Imagine how much more successful and fulfilled students would be if they had better exposure to careers and the education and training pathways that open doors to those jobs when choosing among colleges, postsecondary training programs and even college majors.

Last week, I had the privilege of helping to organize a national summit focused on educational pathways where these very issues were being addressed. Leaders from 20 communities in more than a dozen different states gathered in Indianapolis to share learnings, challenges and strategies in their collective efforts to build pathways to the jobs that matter most in their regions. The room was filled with a range of leaders from K-12 schools, higher education, workforce training programs, employers, governors’ offices and legislatures. They all recognize that their students and their communities will be better off if they can expand access to quality educational pathways that lead to good jobs. And they’re pursuing some pretty innovative strategies to put more of those programs in place.

First and foremost, these leaders are focused on building and expanding pathways into the career fields—like healthcare, information technology, engineering and advanced manufacturing—that are growing and pay well. There was a great deal of discussion at the meeting about what it takes to get this supply/demand balance right. At both the high school and college levels, it takes intentional effort to align the courses and programs offered with the evolving job market. This means delving into labor market data to understand where the opportunities lie and which educational pathways and credentials are needed to succeed in those jobs. It also means that education leaders need to be tightly connected to local employers to understand what skills they are looking for. None of this comes naturally for a K-12 education system that is used to setting its targets on high school graduation, or even college-going, or for a college system focused narrowly on completion.

Another key priority for these leaders is flexibility. Students in high school are still young and most may not know for certain which career they want to pursue; but being on a pathway doesn’t mean being locked into a career choice. The best pathways programs are designed to provide students with career exposure, work-based learning experiences and exploration opportunities so that they can make more informed choices—including which pathways are not for them. Leaders are working to build flexible pathways for students that offer both clear direction and the ability to change course. Kentucky, for instance, is undertaking a big effort to provide more connected, holistic advising experiences for all of its students to offer them a deep understanding of their options and support along the way to make choices that are right for them.

Finally, and crucially, leaders at the forefront of the pathways movement are cognizant of the United States’ long history of unequal access to opportunity and the tracking of certain students —usually students of color and those from lower income brackets—toward lower-level educational paths. Leaders at the summit were clear-eyed about this challenge and are addressing it head on. They are taking a hard look at who has access to the highest-value pathways and figuring out how to make them more widely available. They’re identifying problematic gaps in student outcomes and focusing on closing them. They’re committed to making sure that the pathways they are building will lead to good jobs so that no student who pursues one will end up stuck at a dead end.

The economy remains the number one issue on voters’ minds; talent shortages are at the top of employers’ priority lists; and parents and families are increasingly asking about the return on investment for their children’s education. By broadening our focus from “go to college” to “get on a meaningful educational pathway,” we can successfully address all of these issues.

Every student will eventually build a career. For most, it will likely be after attending some form of college or postsecondary education. It’s time to embrace this reality and give students the opportunity to more intentionally connect their education to their future starting in middle and high school.

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