Equitable Pathways to Upward Mobility


In Detroit and the surrounding 11 southeast Michigan counties, less than 80 percent of students graduate from high school.  Of the roughly half of Detroit high school graduates who do go to college, nearly half fail to graduate in six years.

Nationally, just 53 percent of all young people go to college and, of those, only about 60 percent earn a degree.

Ours is a society that does relatively little for those who are not on the college track.  The message sent to these young people resembles Bart Simpson’s quip:  “Can’t win. Don’t try.”

We live in cynical times, when it’s easy to assume that solutions to pressing social and educational problems lie beyond our knowledge and capabilities.  In fact, we have learned a great deal about how to address educational and employment inequities and bring many more young people to a bright future.

We can do better.  We must do better.

A key to bringing underserved populations to success in high-demand industries and occupations is not a secret.  It requires a multifaceted approach that incorporates each of the following elements.

  • Establish guided curricular pathways that lead to a career.
  • Replace non-credit remedial courses with co-requisite remediation, including companion courses and help from tutors and other support specialists.
  • Institute competency-based curricula, active and experiential learning pedagogies, and authentic assessments that tightly align with career outcomes.
  • Substitute math pathways, aligned with particular curricula and career goals, for traditional math course sequences.
  • Provide holistic student supports, including academic and career advising, tuition, transportation, and basic needs assistance, and access to emergency aid.
  • Offer industry-recognized credentials that can stack into degrees.
  • Implement technology-enabled advising to monitor student progress and prompt pro-active interventions when students are off-track.
  • Provide seamless transfer and articulation of credits for those who seek to transfer to other institutions.
  • Engage with transfer institutions and employers.
  • Conduct rigorous evaluation.

If the answers to the challenge are already known, why, then, haven’t we had greater success?  Is the major barrier administrators’ ignorance?  Flawed institutional cultures?  Bureaucratic inertia?  Money?  Implementation challenges? 

In fact, among the biggest obstacles is the perception among many potential enrollees that the programs are unlikely to lead to success.  Already turned off by school, all too many potential beneficiaries are convinced that the programs’ opportunity costs and demands are too steep, and that life is far too likely to get in the way of program completion.

These are wholly reasonable concerns.

Many young people look around them and see failed workforce training programs with poor outcomes.  It’s not surprising that many doubt that a fresh approach is likely to succeed.

What, then, are the solutions?

1.  Build Career Awareness
In high school or even earlier, introduce potential participants to wage and employment projections and clearly identify the skills required by specific occupations.

2.  Refuse to treat non-degree or vocational pathways as inferior to degree pathways.
An older belief in the dignity of all forms of labor has faded, replaced by a tendency to divide the working population into winners and losers.  We need to value all forms of work and resist the assumption that some jobs are lesser or unimportant.

3. Reduce Financial Barriers
Even free isn’t sufficient if the opportunity costs are too great.  Coverage of at least some living costs is essential.    

4. Start early
Potential beneficiaries are more likely to take part in these programs if they start before they have made major life commitments.

5. Sell the program to those who say they’ve got “no time for training.”
Given other demands on individuals’ time, we need to convince many more that advanced training will genuinely pay-off:  that additional training isn’t irrelevant or a waste of time, but, rather, a key to advancement and upward mobility.

6. Create on-ramps and off-ramps
Since not all potential participants are interested in entering these programs early, publicize multiple entry points that can accommodate those with complicated lives.  

7. Expand earn-learn options
Work with employers to integrate training into their employees’ jobs.

8. Ensure that the pathways lead to actual career success
This requires industry input, programs that emphasize career-aligned knowledge and skills, and close monitoring of post-completion employment and earnings outcomes. 

9. Create programs that document learners’ workplace skills.
To combat the “experience gap,” design programs that demonstrate that learners have acquired the skills that employers seek.

10. Create employment guarantees
Convinced employers in fields with high employment demand to guarantee jobs post-program completion.

If we are to create a more just, inclusive, and equitable society, we must do more to expand the pathways to economic success beyond the traditional college degree.   Certainly, there is a danger that non-degree options might exacerbate inequality, trapping recipients in low-wage, dead-end jobs and further encourage companies to abandon in-house training.  Which is, of course, why the value of such programs must be carefully assessed and why such programs must be stackable into degrees.

A new book by Paul L. Gaston and Michelle Van Noy, Credentials: Understand the Problems, Identify the Opportunities, Create the Solutions, examines the expanding universe of non-degree credentialing options that promise to open doors to opportunity.  

As the authors note, the credential ecosystem is a chaotic mess, with too many confusing options, too little reliable guidance, and too many programs with questionable employment outcomes.  Without well-defined, industry-aligned curricula, robust advising, effective pedagogies, wrap-around support structures, valid and reliable performance and skills assessments, and assurance of quality and integrity, such programs are “hooey.”

So what lessons do I take away from Gaston and Van Noy’s book?

1. Community colleges, in particular, need to recognize that non-degree credentials and apprenticeships can play an important role in improving recipients’ employment and earnings prospects, but only if the program outcomes are utterly transparent and the programs themselves are supplemented with a strong, wrap-around system of guidance, support, and evaluation.

2. Quality programs must combine a structured curriculum, evidence-based pedagogies, hands-on practical applications, intensive mentoring, exacting assessment, and post-completion support.

3. Institutions should be highly strategic in which non-degree credential programs they offer, limiting those to programs that align closely with the needs and interests of first generation students and disadvantaged students and industry demand and with a proven record of success in terms of completion rates, employment placement, and access to additional credentials.

There ought not be but a single path to success.  By privileging the college degree, we have, implicitly and systematically, underinvested in other pathways that the least advantaged, most underprivileged students would benefit from.  That’s unconscionable. 

In his 1965 commencement address at Howard University, President Lyndon Johnson declared:

“Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

“This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity. We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”

It’s high time to open the gates of opportunity wider.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.


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