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Creating pathways to the workforce

Dane Smith//February 18, 2015//

Creating pathways to the workforce

Dane Smith//February 18, 2015//

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Here’s an audacious idea: If we know that more and better post-high school credentials are crucial to economic vitality — and even more important for success in life for our increasingly diverse younger generation — why don’t we increase the minimum education level to which all Minnesotans are entitled?

In other words, perhaps the free community college proposal advanced by the State Senate does not go far enough and cover enough territory. We ought to consider guaranteeing to all Minnesota youth access to a meaningful postsecondary certificate or degree, with multiple pathways to the most relevant and employable skills and credentials.

Combining this objective with our recent movement toward providing cost-free early education for parents at the start of the pipeline, Minnesota could be first in the nation to create a new “E-14” system, eliminating expenses and debt for low- and middle-income families, perhaps first by guaranteeing debt-free credentials for those occupations most in demand in the economy.

To those who say this is too ambitious or we can’t afford it, let’s consider our not so distant past. Just over a century ago, in 1910, less than 10 percent of American 18-year-olds had graduated from high school, according to the seminal Pathways to Prosperity Project report issued in 2011 by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The Pathways Project continues being updated, and a key author, Robert Schwartz, presented the latest findings and recommendations to several Twin Cities audiences earlier this month.

Owing largely to something called “the high school movement” during the first half of the 20th century, Schwartz explained, the percentage of youth graduating from high school rose to well over half by the 1940s and to more than 80 or 90 percent today, depending on whether you measure on-time or eventual graduation.

Minnesota was at the forefront of that movement, and for most of our history, we have had one of the higher average education attainment rates among the states, in a nation that until recently had the highest average attainment rate in the world.

The competitive advantage provided by generous education entitlement, many economists agree, was perhaps the single most important factor in the rise of the United States to its status as an economic superpower, and to Minnesota’s ascent among the states in both average income and quality of life.

Slippage in those rankings over the last two decades has been widely documented; more than a dozen nations in Asia and Europe now have better higher education attainment rates. And despite very high continuing aspirations by our youth and their parents — surveys show 90 percent of students want to continue their education after high school, and our enrollment rates are quite high — the U.S. now has the highest postsecondary dropout rate in the industrialized world.

Too many students are underprepared for college work and become discouraged by the remediation courses they must take. Even if tuition is free or reduced, other costs are prohibitive, and leaving school to work, even at low-paying, non-career jobs, makes too much sense for many students. And as the Harvard Pathways Project report declares in bold letters: “too many can’t see a clear, transparent connection between their program of study and tangible opportunities in the labor market.”

The report argues persuasively that our systems “would be greatly strengthened if the pathways to all major occupations were clearly delineated from the beginning of high school so that young people and their families could clearly see the patterns of course-taking and other experiences that would best position them for access to that field.”

Noting the national higher education and workforce systems in Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain and Australia, the Pathways report recommends providing as much support as necessary to help ensure that young people acquire minimal vocational or higher-ed credentials, including penalties such as loss of social benefits for those who drop out.

In Germany, the Harvard Pathways Project found, more than 80 percent of young adults found jobs within six months of completing their education, versus less than half in the U.S. The project report determined that “prevalent use of apprenticeships and sustained internships are the key to success in those nations, because they provide a structure to support the transition from adolescence to adult lacking for the majority of young people in the U.S.” (State Sen. Terri Bonoff is spearheading an effort to emulate Germany’s success in Minnesota with a PIPELINE project that begins to expand public-private apprenticeship programs.)

In a recent commentary that praises the growing “E-14” mindset, Star Tribune columnist Lori Sturdevant describes Bonoff’s support for a more streamlined approach to educating Minnesotans — from preschool learning all the way to Ph.D., with Bonoff adding that she would “hate to limit it to 14 grades.”

Sturdevant goes on to itemize an incomplete list of proposals and ideas that build toward an E-14 entitlement, including: free tuition at a community or technical college for any Minnesota high school graduate, not means tested; loan forgiveness for graduates in key fields, in exchange for a commitment to live and work in those fields in a region where they are most needed; apprenticeships that combine work and college study in selected fields, financed at least in part by employers as well as taxpayers; and more opportunities and encouragement for all high school students, not just “A” students,  to earn college or vocational credits right where they are, which is the focus of an impressive set of proposals this year by the Center for School Change.

The Harvard Pathways Project offers many examples of best practices and programs around the country where early credits, mentorships and apprenticeships, and alternative pathways are finding success, from California to Boston.

Perhaps because of skittishness in today’s political climate about using the oft-maligned word  “entitlement” — and even if past success shows broad and generous education entitlement to be the best idea in our nation’s history — the bold idea of a stronger postsecondary guarantee is finding a voice.

The Harvard Pathways Project calls for “A New Social Compact With Youth” with an “overarching goal that by the time they reach their early 20s, every young adult will be equipped with the education and experience he or she needs to lead a successful life as an adult.”

That sounds like a serviceable mission statement for Minnesota, which could assert itself as the first state to make a “Career Pathway Promise.” We can call it something else — an entitlement, or a guarantee, or a new social compact. By whatever name, it smells like sweet success for all our youth, especially for low-income kids of color who are on the wrong side of our opportunity gap.

Dane Smith is the president for Growth & Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on a broader and more inclusive economic prosperity for Minnesota.

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