The high school movement, an early 20th century American grassroots shift in secondary education, produced “a spectacular educational transformation,” according to Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. Between 1910 and 1940, 18-year-old enrollment grew from 19% to 71%, and graduation rates rose from 9% to more than 50%, boosting the country to the forefront of educational achievement in the world. This unparalleled expansion of publicly funded, broadly accessible secondary schools was provoked by the transformation of American society resulting from turn-of-the-century urbanization and industrialization.
Today, America is again experiencing rapid economic, social, and cultural change. It’s time to respond to these challenges by embracing a 21st century high school movement, led by what I call evasive civic entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs are using local organizations, enterprises, and other resources to create a new opportunity program for young people that prepares them to live, work, and compete as responsible citizens in today’s economy. This “career pathways” approach integrates schools and students with local employers and work, going far beyond the current K–12 system that is disconnected from employers, work, and careers.
This approach exemplifies what Robert Bellah described as one understanding of American politics: local civic engagement supporting collective action for the common good. It also fosters opportunity pluralism, promoting alternatives to the “college degree for all” mindset that characterizes much of K–12 education today.
A New Opportunity Program
Today, many believe a college degree is the key pathway to a prosperous life, producing what the political philosopher Michael Sandel calls “credentialist prejudice.” The result is a degree that becomes “a precondition for dignified work and social esteem … fueling prejudice against less educated members of society.” The K–12 mantra is “college for all.” This view sidesteps two facts: nearly two-thirds (65%) of the U.S. labor force don’t have college degrees, and there are many good middle-skill jobs for individuals with a high school education.
The career pathways approach replaces “college for all” with a broader understanding of opportunity, without abandoning the college degree option. This approach creates more specialized, skills-based pathways and credentials linked to labor market demand. This would allow the nation’s opportunity infrastructure to become more pluralistic, offering multiple recognized and credentialed pathways to success.
The essential elements of a new opportunity program are what students know (knowledge) and whom they know (relationships). The goal is to ensure that every American—especially those in K–12 schools—regardless of background or current condition, has multiple pathways to acquiring the knowledge and networks needed for jobs and careers, preparing them to access opportunity and a flourishing life.
In short, Knowledge + Networks = Opportunity.
This opportunity program differs sharply from the vocational education of old that placed students into tracks with defined occupational destinations. That sorting process carried with it racial, ethnic, and social-class biases: immigrant students, low-income students, and students of color typically were enrolled in low-level academic and vocational training while middle- and upper-class white students enrolled in academic, college-preparatory classes.
An Opportunity Program Design
Five features should guide program design when creating a pathways success infrastructure.
Academic and Technical Skills and Credentials. Programs teach academic and technical skills aligned with labor market needs, ensuring that graduates meet employer demands. There’s a timeline for program completion, and at completion, participants receive a recognized credential, tied to a good job.
Work and Careers. Exposure to and exploration of work and careers begin early with guest speakers and field trips. High school includes career experience via work placement and mentorships, integrated into classroom instruction. Exposure, exploration, and experience connect students with adults, especially students in high-poverty communities.
Advising. An effective advising system prevents forced tracking into jobs based on race, ethnicity, gender, or social class. This ensures that students make informed choices, barriers like financial assistance are addressed, and data are used to keep students progressing through the program. With good advising, students become confident and knowledgeable enough to make their own choices about the correct pathway.
Authentic Partnerships. Employers, industry groups, and other institutions collaborate for programs to succeed. Written agreements define who is responsible for what and formalize a management and governance structure—a civic partnership—between partners.
Supporting Policies. Local, state, and federal policies create frameworks and funding streams for program development.
University of Texas law professor Joseph Fishkin writes about how individuals access opportunity, including how the job credentialing process contains bottlenecks that constrain opportunity. He argues for opportunity pluralism, or offering individuals multiple education, training, and credentialing pathways to work and career, including the college degree. Instead of struggling to equalize opportunity on a single pathway, opportunity should be broadened and deepened, making the nation’s opportunity infrastructure pluralistic, valuing both educational and employment outcomes.
An opportunity program is not about discouraging young people from pursuing a college degree. Rather, it positions a variety of options as valued credentials that recognize the ways that knowledge, networks, skills, and experience lead to good jobs and a fulfilled life. This same principle—that a wider array of options is better for students and society—supports the idea of colleges separating, or “unbundling,” the four-year degree into multiple certificates or credentials.
These building blocks, or stackable credentials, would be acquired while working and learning through a career progression toward the typical associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. David Osborne of Reinventing Government fame has proposed individual “career opportunity accounts” as a way to pay for this approach. This would combine federal and state dollars and potentially include individual contributions like individual retirement accounts.
These pathways programs that help young people acquire knowledge, networks, skills, and experience also develop an occupational identity and vocational self, including a broader sense of who they are as adults. They also foster local civic engagement, and they provide faster and cheaper pathways to jobs and careers than traditional postsecondary education. Finally, they place students on a trajectory to economic and social well-being, informed citizenship, and civic responsibility, laying a foundation for adult success and a lifetime of opportunity.