Pathways to Endless Possibilities

It should be clear by now that a high school education is not enough to prepare students for success in today's workforce, let alone tomorrow's. Many students will go on to four-year colleges, many more will receive other types of post-secondary credentials. For far too many, without guidance, may not make it past high school, and their career options are bleak. So what's the solution? How do we prepare all students for life after high school?

A new report from Harvard Graduate School of Education, entitled "Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century" outlines several successful models for career and college readiness, both stateside and internationally. What each initiative has in common is the practice of work-based learning. Learning on the job and from professionals allows students to try on different careers and industries to decide what they do and do not like.

Early exposure to the working world is key, and I know for many people it conjures up images of turning students into corporate robots. I've heard it throughout my career in connecting education and businesses, and I've seen it in the comments on my previous posts here. The truth is quite the contrary. By providing clear pathways to major occupations and industries, students have the guidance to make informed decisions and feel confident in knowing what steps they should take to position them for a successful career.

Seventeen-year-olds chose which colleges and programs to apply to or what kind of technical college they will attend. How does career education limit their ability to make these decisions? Do we apply this logic to any other kind of education? Does letting students learn Spanish mean we are crushing their ability to realize their potential in Mandarin? The research (on work-based learning or foreign language study) definitely doesn't bear out these conclusions.

At my organization, the National Academy Foundation, one-third of students end up in the industry they studied at their career academy, meanwhile 85 percent of NAF graduates are in a professional career in any industry. These young people have had the benefit of understanding how what they are learning in high school connects to the world beyond; they've honed teamwork, problem-solving and communications skills and then tested them in their internships; and they've formed relationships with business professionals who want to support them on their chosen path.

We need to help young people uncover their individual motivations and career desires and define the steps toward attaining them. I agree with President Obama that we need to make schools places of high expectations, but without changes in how we support students' fulfillment of those expectations, that is all they might be. Our touchstone value, "the American dream," the ability of all people to carve out the life they most desire, is what we reject when we deny the next generation the right to explore.

We must expand the possibilities of students who might otherwise not know how to get from point A to point B. The idea is simple. Give students the opportunity to learn hard and soft skills in a real world setting and they can take these tools with them wherever their career takes them. Not all students will know what they want to do in high school, but if we give them the opportunity to explore early, they will have a better chance of being on a pathway to prosperity.