How K12 Can Strengthen Pathways between Education and Employment

Almost two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates enroll immediately in some form of post-secondary education. Why?

Getting a better job is a “very important” reason for — on average since 2010 — 86 percent of entering college freshman.

Is that hope realized? Yes and no.

Two current studies spotlight this aspiration-to-experience rift. The first, by Strada Education Network and Gallup, is the nation’s largest collection of college consumer insights on post-secondary education’s efforts to prepare young people for the job market and workforce.

The second, a series by Echelon Insights, is of millennials aged 18 to 35 speaking about their public school experience: both how their own education prepared them for college, work, and life, and how they expect schools to prepare their own children, now that so many millennials are parents themselves.

These studies provide key findings on the aspiration-to-experience disconnect felt by many college-goers. Is there a way for innovative K-12 schools and organizations to step in earlier to prepare young people for job market and workforce success?

College and K-12 Consumers Speak Out

A central finding of Strada and Gallup’s three-year effort involving more than 500,000 college consumers — both college goers and graduates — is that the most important element for a valuable and quality higher education is how relevant coursework was to their careers and daily lives.

We learn that:

• Only 26 percent of working Americans with college experience “strongly agree” their college education is relevant to career and daily life.

• Comparing those with the lowest and highest relevance scores, there is a 63-point gap between those who “strongly agree” education was worth the cost (14 percent vs. 77 percent) and a 50-point gap between those who “strongly agree” they received a high-quality education (27 percent vs. 77 percent).

Echelon Insights show that millennials understand the importance of education in creating opportunity for people. And while most millennials think their own education was good, few think their K-12 experience prepared them for much beyond high school — a circumstance they hope to fix for their own children.

We learn that:

• Two-thirds of millennials say they got a good or very good education — though only 39 percent think they’re prepared to succeed in the workforce and only 20 percent felt prepared to navigate life and real world challenges.

• When asked what best describes the purpose of a good education, the second most common answer among millennial parents is “to prepare students for the workforce so they can succeed in a career and make a living.”

Both studies show that these college and school consumers experience buyer’s remorse — a sense of regret and disconnect between their post-secondary expectations and educational experiences.

New Approaches

To borrow a line from best-selling author Tony Schwartz, “The way we’re working isn’t working.”

Fortunately, changes are happening and some innovative public and private programs offer new ways to involve students in career pathways earlier in their schooling experience.

In Georgia, Junior Achievement, Fulton County Schools, and the Atlanta business community launched a public-private partnership in 2015 to create a new school curriculum model within a traditional district high school. 3-D Education “re-engineers high school education to be more relevant, experiential, and…connected to the…real world in order to more fully prepare today’s students for the demands of tomorrow’s economy. Today, “3DE” has expanded to six schools in four public school districts.

Examples of the workforce pathways they offer students include business and technology; entrepreneurship; marketing and management; and financial services. 3DE’s project based learning design includes a six-week case study beginning in 11th grade which involves students in off-campus experiences with industries and professions, including work based coaches. Not only do students excel academically, they feel prepared for what lies ahead: 98 percent of 3DE students feel excited about their futures.

In New Orleans, the education, business, and civic partnership YouthForce NOLA has been preparing students for high-wage and high-demand career pathways since 2015. YF NOLA works with open enrollment charter high schools, offering career exposure and work experiences, soft-skills training, coaching for students, and paid student internships for seniors. The internships consist of six hours of paid training, followed by 90 hours of work placement in a career pathway where opportunities include biology and health sciences, digital media and IT, and skilled crafts like architecture and water management.

YF NOLA has other programs, including an annual Career Expo for sophomores sponsored by Junior Achievement; a soft skills teacher fellowship where teachers learn the practice and teaching of soft skills; and a family engagement program educating parents about the career pathways program. The twelve organizations comprising the organization’s steering committee — including New Orleans school district, workforce and economic development organizations, community advisory groups, and philanthropic partners — are the secret sauce to getting on the other side of bureaucracy and putting New Orleans’ students first.

In Indianapolis, Kenzie Academy began in 2017 as a two-year venture funded technology and apprenticeship program, focused on software engineering skills, for students from varying backgrounds — e.g., 19 year old high school graduates, formerly incarcerated individuals, and individuals with master’s degrees seeking new occupational opportunities. In year two of the program, students apprentice in Kenzie Studio, the company’s consulting arm.

To make the $24,000-a-year program accessible to more people, students have an income-share agreement that can delay payments until they complete the program and have a job paying at least $40,000. Kenzie also has a partnership with Butler University allowing students to receive a joint certificate from both organizations.

These new career-enhancing programs can overcome the aspiration-to-experience rift that we’re seeing from college consumers and millennials.

Programs like 3DE, YF NOLA and Kenzie Academy provide young people earlier in their schooling with new options to gain the knowledge and skills that will lead to success in the workforce and a lifetime of opportunity. And these models are replicable, sustainable, and workable in a multitude of school district, charter schools, and other public-private settings.

Education leaders and policymakers should take notice. Students, employers, and taxpayers — and today’s largest generation — will thank them.

— Bruno V. Manno

Bruno V. Manno is Senior Advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s K-12 Program.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College