Co-Designing, Co-Delivering, and Co-Validating the College and Career Readiness of Youth: Partnerships the Economy Needs Now

By Joel Vargas, Vice President, School and Learning Designs, Jobs for the Future

In an economic era where having a postsecondary credential is required to secure a family-supporting career, too many young people never finish high school, enroll in college, or complete a degree or credential. This hurts individuals and our economy, which is weakened when jobs go unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers.

One problem is that our nation’s high schools were never designed to prepare all students for postsecondary education or training. In times when a high school diploma was more likely to lead to a good job, this might have been acceptable. It certainly is not now. The push in K-12 education toward the Common Core and other rigorous college and career ready standards shows the shift that states are making, recognizing this reality.

Even so, misalignments remain between high schools, colleges, and employers. Educators don’t by and large understand what employers want; employers screen for credentials like a bachelor’s degree for jobs that don’t necessarily require that degree; and colleges rarely accept high school credentials and test performance as evidence of readiness for college-level work.

Moreover, many students don’t know how to navigate to and through college and into careers—especially low-income and first-generation college students who have few friends or family who have done it. They may at most have an abstract idea of a career they want and how to prepare for it. They don’t know the mechanics of college enrollment like filling out financial aid forms nor have they developed the problem-solving skills and habits of learning and working needed to be successful in college and a career.

Addressing these challenges requires forging stronger partnerships between schools, colleges, and employers that put all students on a path toward a postsecondary credential that is in demand in the labor market. Good examples include:

  • Schools with an early college design prepare underserved youth for college by supporting them to earn college credit as part of high school, resulting in strong momentum toward a college degree and cost savings. About 30 percent of early college high school graduates earn an associate degree with their high school diploma.
  • Linked Learning is a strategy started in California and now growing “that it connects strong academics with real-world experience in a wide range of fields, helping students gain an advantage in high school, college, and career.” Linked Leaning students are showing more engagement and success in college-preparatory course work, completion of high school, and in their understanding of steps needed to advance in careers.

Jobs for the Future is promoting such strategies in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education through our Pathways to Prosperity Network. The network advances systems of career pathways linking high school, work, and college to increase the number of youth who complete high school and attain a postsecondary credential with labor market value.

These strategies work particularly well when all partners commit to co-designing the learning experience for students; sharing staff, space, and other resources in co-delivering the curriculum and support students need; and co-validating agreed-upon evidence of student achievement (e.g., awarding credit and giving students access to higher-level learning or employment opportunities).

There is a moment now for policymakers and other leaders to encourage such partnerships for at least two reasons:

  • Wider implementation of college and career ready assessments will increasingly identify the level of readiness of students at the end of 11th grade, leaving time for partnerships to design a more purposeful 12th-grade experience — and in time to make a difference.
  • As states adjust accountability and finance systems to promote college and career success practices by schools and colleges, they should consider incentives rewarding both K-12 and colleges (not to mention employers) that demonstrate they are improving student outcomes by working together.