From trade schools and apprenticeships to four-year colleges and the U.S. Armed Forces, high school students have many choices when plotting their future. They also have a rapidly changing world to contend with, including college-affordability concerns, fluctuating student loan forgiveness rules and pandemic-era challenges. There are also concerns about disconnected youth. Creating stronger pathways to college and careers is more important than ever, according to experts who study the education-to-employment system.
Investing in better pathway programs is one of President Joe Biden’s education priorities. In his recent fiscal year 2024 budget, he proposed $1.47 billion for Career and Technical Education state grants, an increase of $43 million, and a $200 million investment to redesign high schools to build career and college pathways that align with the postsecondary system.
As more money and resources are poured into these pathways and partnerships, education journalists should be tracking the progress. What’s working? What’s not? Who are these programs helping? To help reporters find and tell these stories, we’ve gathered resources, tips and suggested questions for reporting on college and career pathways across the U.S. Reporters who have covered this crucial topic also shared some of their takeaways and advice below.
Partnerships Creating Pathways
Business, school and state leaders from around the country have formed partnerships to help more students access quality careers and education.
Successful programs typically have five common features, according to the think tank, Thomas B. Fordham Institute:
- An academic curriculum linked with labor-market needs leading to a recognized credential and decent income
- Career exposure and work, including engagement with and supervision by adults
- Advisers helping participants make informed choices, ensuring they complete the program
- A written civic compact between employers, trade associations, and community partners
- And supportive local, state, and federal policies that make these programs possible.
Here are examples of partnerships around the country that reporters can evaluate:
- California: As part of the California Linked Learning District Initiative launched by The James Irvine Foundation in 2009, students from various school districts began participating in programs that integrated academics with real-world work experiences. A 2015 evaluation found the linked learning pathway programs better prepared students for work and college but struggled to retain special education students and English learners, among other findings.
The Linked Learning Alliance now has active pathway programs in 18 states. The programs focus on rigorous academics, career and technical education, work-based learning and support services.
- Delaware: Allowing students to get technical training and high-quality work experiences with local employers, Delaware Pathways was created by government, nonprofit, and community organizations in 2015. It serves more than 23,000 students in 89 middle and high schools across the state or about 71%. It will take some time to measure if the program proved to be successful for most students.
- Tennessee: Drive to 55 Alliance has a goal to get 55% of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. The private-community partnership also helps high school graduates get two years of tuition-free community or technical college.
One of the more successful pathways has been the P-TECH program, which stands for Pathways in Technology Early College High School. It began at a school in Brooklyn, where it launched in 2011 for high school students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Created by IBM, the New York City Department of Education, and The City University of New York, the program is now in nearly 30 countries across the globe and has more than 200 programs in the U.S., according to Rashid Ferrod Davis, founding principal of P-TECH.
Students who enroll can take high school and college coursework simultaneously while getting work experience. P-TECH is open to all students and has no academic screening or tests for admission. The program has already seen results, according to Davis, who said IBM hired P-TECH’s first graduates in 2015. Students who complete the program typically continue their education in a four-year college or begin entry-level careers in IT, health care, advanced manufacturing and other fields
“It was the hiring of these graduates with the two-year degree that helped [IBM] remove the four-year degree requirement when considering talent,” he said.
Another outcome is the focus on student diversity, which Davis would like to see more reporters cover in their stories.
“P-TECH Brooklyn has the highest percentage of Black college-going males in early college in NYC,” said Davis. “I would like to see reporters really share outcomes through the intersections of ethnicity and gender for both high school and college. There is a value add and return on investment that we have for producing STEM college graduates with our majority Black male population.”
How to Evaluate Partnerships and Pathway Programs
Washington, D.C.-based journalist Jamaal Abdul-Alim profiled a Texas high school student last summer as part of an in-depth report on P-TECH. The student was able to earn more than $21 an hour as an intern at IBM and graduated high school with an associate degree. His paid internship at IBM also came with a $750 stipend for home office equipment.
For reporters who want to cover similar stories and report on college and career pathways, Abdul-Alim suggests examining programs and initiatives that were launched in your area several years ago, instead of those recently unveiled.
“This will enable you to follow up to see how things are going instead of merely reporting on a program’s existence,” Abdul-Alim said.
Specifically, he says, reporters should seek to obtain:
- Program evaluations and assessments, especially those from independent research firms.
- Research on the programs, preferably studies that assess program effectiveness but also qualitative studies.
- Correspondence from responsible leaders and coordinators regarding the program.
- Interviews with program leaders and other stakeholders.
- Interviews with program participants.
“Even if you’re planning to do a big comprehensive story on a particular program or initiative, don’t shy away from doing shorter articles along the way,” Abdul-Alim said. “Those shorter articles will make your long-term articles even better because now you’ll be more familiar and able to go more in-depth.”
Education Reporters Share Advice
As new pathways and partnerships form, education journalists around the country are reporting on what’s working and what hasn’t.
In Cleveland, Ohio, freelance education reporter Patrick O’Donnell did a deep dive on the rise of apprenticeships and the changing college-for-all mentality. As part of his story, he profiled a college graduate who found hope in a cybersecurity apprenticeship program after struggling to launch her career. O’Donnell provided some takeaways from his in-depth story.
“There are five or six concepts in there that would be decent standalone stories,” he said. “There are lots of stories folks can do.”
Something to consider is the spectrum of opportunities high school students have to learn about workplaces. O’Donnell recommends finding out where schools in your area fall on this opportunity spectrum:
- Career nights
- Worksite tours
- Shadowing an employee
- Short, unpaid internships
- Long, unpaid internships
- Paid internships or paid summer jobs
- Pre apprenticeships
- Apprenticeships that award industry certificates or help students get an associate degree
- Apprenticeships that pay for education and have a guaranteed job at the end.
Apprenticeship programs allow students to get paid work experience, mentorship, classroom instruction and credentials that will help them in their future careers. The programs are beneficial for employers, as well, because they can recruit and train students to work in their field.
About 93% of apprentices who complete a Registered Apprenticeship retain employment, with an average annual salary of $77,000, according to Apprenticeship.gov. The government website includes a job board where students (and education journalists) can find apprenticeship job openings in their area.
In Los Angeles, journalist Jackie Orchard reported on a trade college’s culinary program that is helping local restaurants find new chefs. Los Angeles Trade-Technical College has the oldest continuous culinary arts program in the country, and its new 70,000 square-foot facility is an investment in the fast-growing culinary market.
To tell stories like this, Orchard suggests reaching out to school leaders, including public information officers, to tap into their knowledge and expertise.
“Often, these people have been in their positions for several years and can provide important context and the history of the programs,” said Orchard. “University presidents are also a great resource, as many of these pathway programs came from their own brains.”
Orchard also suggests getting to know the schools in your area and asking about their specialized fields.
“Oh, this campus has an entire cosmetology wing? Noted,” said Orchard. “This campus does all the line repairs for the electric companies? There’s a demonstration every year? Noted. This campus provides trumpeters for the Rose Bowl parade? Noted.”
Ask These Questions When Reporting on Pathways
Here are some questions reporters Abdul-Alim, O’Donnell and Orchard suggest asking when reporting on this crucial topic:
- Whose idea was the pathway? (Find that person and do an interview.)
- What was the original vision, and how much of that has been accomplished so far?
- What kinds of career and technical programs are high schools developing and offering?
- Has your legislature passed any bills to add funding or flexibility for career training programs? Who sought the change and why?
- What credentials can students earn?
- How well are high schools offering Advanced Placement and similar courses that are meant to prepare high schoolers for the demands of college?
- Is there increased demand for CTE classes? Are CTE programs adding classes and seats? Are they turning students away? How has that changed over time?
- What areas are most in demand? Manufacturing? Nursing?
- Are summer jobs aligned to students’ career interests?
- Are students paid? How much? Is the pay competitive with retail and fast food?
- How many hours per week do students work?
- How do students schedule work around classes and high school extracurriculars?
- What kinds of partnerships are high schools forming with colleges and businesses to provide education and employment opportunities for soon-to-be high school graduates?
- How are high schools working with colleges and other organizations to produce a more efficient college admission or transfer process? (Ask about things like direct admission and dual enrollment.)
- Is an apprenticeship registered with the U.S. Department of Labor? (That is one measure of quality.)
- Does an apprentice program give students a transferable skill and credential that makes them more marketable to other companies? Or is it training them just for one skill and one company?
- What are high schools doing specifically for students who don’t see a four-year college as an option?