Educators know there are certain turning points in students’ academic journeys that hold the potential to change their trajectories forever.
One is the transition from eighth to ninth grade — if students don’t make it smoothly, they are more apt to struggle in high school or even drop out. Another is the shift from high school to college; strong alignment at this juncture measurably improves the chances for postsecondary success.
Schools often treat these inflection points as just that — moments breaking up a timeline — when they should instead be seen as part of an integrated continuum, from the end of middle school through the start of careers.
Call it the decade of difference.
Between the ages of 14 to 24, young people undergo an enormous transformation. These are the years in which they fully develop their attitudes and personalities, their aspirations and a sense of purpose. Their brains, changing in ways they hadn’t since early childhood, become increasingly plastic, making connections that allow them to engage in increasingly complex thinking.
At the same time, young adults are seeking meaning within their own and other peer groups, as well as in the wider world. They crave deeper social connections, as well as outlets for their creative and intellectual passions.
All these changes demand classroom schedules that allow young people to experience learning outside of school — at colleges and at the workplace — through internships and other opportunities for professional networking. The strength of the workforce also depends on innovative ways to keep these future employees engaged, on track and connected to college and fulfilling careers.
Across the country, state and local education leaders are embracing the knowledge of what young people in this decade need to succeed — and prioritizing programs that create seamless transitions to the world after high school.
In California, lawmakers are considering a $2 billion budget appropriation to create and expand pathways that combine rigorous academics with career training and quicker routes to higher education. These include dual enrollment, which allows students to earn college credits while still in high school. This is a critical investment: As more students, particularly those from underserved populations, have disconnected from learning during the pandemic, there is a growing recognition that theirs is talent California cannot afford to lose — and that college is too late to start connecting young people to the workforce.
Pathways like those powered by the approach known as Linked Learning bring high school, careers and college together with hands-on learning and academics that show the relevance to work. This keeps students engaged in ways that help them become both technically competent and emotionally mature. Combined with more thoughtful advising and other supports, clear pathways also help smooth transitions at a time, post-high school, when many students fall off track.
For example, the Huntington Park Institute of Applied Medicine at Linda Esperanza Marquez High School partners with local hospitals and biomedical research facilities to provide students with hands-on learning and internship opportunities, opening the door to a wide variety of careers. While the institute focuses primarily on sports medicine and biomedical science, students practice a wide variety of skills in different areas of interest. To study the health impacts of environmental factors like a local battery plant, students test air, water and soil samples, conduct research and share their findings with their community — including in presentations to the city council.
In San Bernardino, students can combine environmental sciences, technology and building trades at CORE Academy in Arroyo Valley High School. They prepare for and take the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners assessment, which awards an industry certificate in the alternative energy field. By their senior year, CORE Academy students are putting what they’ve learned into practice by installing solar panels for low-income community members in partnership with a local energy company.
Statewide, over 100,000 young people in 51 districts are pursuing pathways like these, preparing for success in college and careers in engineering, natural resources, health care, education and other high-earning fields.
Such efforts are also in place in states far from California. In Kentucky, the recently formed Commonwealth Education Continuum is working to ease students’ transitions between high school and the workforce or college with measures such as enhanced advising, early exposure to college and careers, partnerships between educators and industry, and expanded opportunities for dual enrollment. The Kentucky Community & Technical College System recently unveiled a mapping tool designed to show how well the colleges’ programs align with workforce needs in every county in the state. The colleges will then use the information to design policies to respond to those needs.
Indiana’s Postsecondary Transitions Steering Committee has recommended several ways to help prepare high school students for the academic and work lives that follow graduation. These include developing and expanding clear pathways to postsecondary education, providing students with more effective counseling, and making better use of data to improve postsecondary and workforce outcomes.
Reaching these goals means transforming high schools so they provide more coherent pathways to college and high-skill, high-wage careers. That requires connecting young adults’ academic, social and economic needs. Fortunately, President Joe Biden has proposed a $200 million Career-Connected High School initiative, aimed at rethinking grades 11 to 14 and bridging the boundaries between high school and higher education. If Congress adopts this program, students across the country, particularly the underserved, could benefit from these life-changing programs.
The pandemic has only underscored the fragility of the crucial 14-to-24 decade: High school graduation rates are down, and college enrollment, particularly at the two-year institutions that educate nearly half of all college students, has markedly declined. The decreases are especially pronounced among students of color, low-income students and students learning English.
This is a make-or-break decade for young people and for the future of our country’s workforce. We would be wise to take full advantage of it.
Deborah S. Delisle is president and CEO of All4Ed, formerly the Alliance for Excellent Education. Anne Stanton is president of the Linking Learning Alliance and principal architect of the Linked Learning movement.