PROBLEM BEING SOLVED
Increasing numbers of young people are not enrolling in college after high school. Across the country, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8 percent between 2019 and 2022, a trend that is unlikely to reverse soon. Young people who opted out of college during the pandemic are not returning to college now that the pandemic has eased. At the same time, we know that median earnings generally increase with each level of education attained, according to research by the Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. In Texas, for example, 70 percent of jobs by 2036 will require some postsecondary credential. Currently, only 22 percent of eighth graders go on to get that credential or degree within six years of high school graduation. And each eighth-grade cohort stands to lose $104 billion in future earnings as result of this lack of readiness. Across the country, we see labor shortages in critical fields including tech, police, fire, nursing, teaching, and the skilled trades. These worker gaps—combined with stalled higher education enrollments—means we are likely to face a shortage of skilled professionals across a range of jobs along with an increased number of underemployed people languishing in low-wage jobs. Creating new pathways for people to access training and education that goes beyond a high school diploma is crucial to help more young people access opportunity and to continue to grow our nation’s economy. We need to increase the accessible and rigorous options for high school students to prepare for work and adult life. In other words, we need good programs that are simple to start and worth the effort to complete. The barriers to enrollment should be low and the value of the program must be clear.
SOLUTION IN DETAIL
Two promising options can help make high school students ready for higher-wage jobs soon after graduation—earning Industry Based Credentials or Certificates (IBCs) and enrolling in dual enrollment programs while still in high school. IBCs can be earned in a range of sectors; they signify that the holder has specific knowledge, skills, and abilities that can be applied in a job. Strong IBC policy includes the following criteria.
- IBCs must align to employers’ needs to have any real value to students. They should certify competency in marketable, in-demand skills.
- IBCs should include coursework, on-the-ground training, and rigorous certification pathways that demonstrate skill mastery.
- State agencies should monitor and assess IBCs regularly to ensure that options are aligned to workforce needs and substantive enough to be valuable to students. Without this step, states risk low-quality and low-value IBCs proliferating. Districts would appear to have complied with any requirement to offer access to IBCs to students, but the credential would hold little to no value for the student.
- IBCs should stack to help students easily build their careers with additional training over time. Dual enrollment programs allow high school students to enroll in college courses and earn college credits before high school graduation. Strong dual enrollment policy includes the following criteria.
- Financial support for students to remove any financial barriers to participation. Tuition and fees should be paid via federal (Perkins V) or state funding to LEA and/or IHE partners.
- Dual enrollment courses should include rigorous content that is credit bearing, not remedial.
- Programs should link to college and career counseling and planning, helping students experience and understand career options.
- Career technical courses should be eligible for dual enrollment. Both options require the following to be done.
- State education accountability systems should include specifics measures for College, Career, and Military Readiness (CCMR) that go beyond graduation rates. What gets measured gets done, and this policy should direct districts to focus beyond diplomas and understand that they have a role in preparing young people to launch into adulthood. Texas has the A-F system, which includes clear measures of CCMR, including IBCs, in its “student achievement” category.
- Data systems that allow the state and LEAs to track who participates in these programs, what completion rates are, and what next steps (employment, military enlistment, enrollment in higher education) are. This information can be used to ensure equitable access to opportunity and create an understanding of the most valuable IBCs or dual enrollment options.
POLICY IMPACT & GOALS
We want young Americans to access prosperous, self-determined lives in which they can support themselves and their families and engage meaningfully in their communities. A good job is an essential cornerstone to that outcome. We need high schools to help launch young people into their next phase of life. College degrees will remain meaningful, and we need additional pathways so that more young people can access high-wage, in-demand jobs. American taxpayers invest nearly $765 billion annually in the public K–12 system to help prepare young people for opportunities and responsibilities of adulthood and citizenship. Creating more robust on-ramps to opportunity for public K–12 students is a smart use of this investment in the system. States can accelerate this process by
- Identifying IBCs and dual enrollments as state priorities and aligning funding, incentives, and support accordingly; and
- Using state longitudinal data systems to better connect public education outcomes and workforce priorities. There are nearly 50 million young people enrolled in public K–12 public education in America. They deserve to be ready to access economic opportunity as young adults. We need their effort, ideas, and productivity to help keep our economy strong.
This piece was originally published in the AEI Policy Catalog