Pathways to Upward Mobility

Robert Schwartz & Nancy Hoffman

Summer 2015

Americans have always been uncomfortable with the idea of social class. Generations ago, immigrants came here seeking to escape the old-world class system in which their opportunities for liberty and economic mobility were almost entirely constrained by the circumstances of their birth. Every generation since has subscribed to the enduring belief that demography need not be destiny. From Benjamin Franklin to Barack Obama, every generation has had its inspiring examples of people who have risen from modest origins to great success. These examples seem to prove that with a good education and enough hard work and determination, anyone can achieve anything. We like to think of America as the only country in which such extraordinary success can be won, for, unlike the European countries that previous generations fled, America has no rigid class system limiting the potential of ambitious and hardworking young people.

A series of international studies about economic mobility have recently shown, however, that, contrary to our view of ourselves, the United States is no longer the country where those born into poverty have the greatest chance of moving up in the world. As these studies have made their way into the mainstream press, Americans have had to face the fact that such Old World countries as Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Norway — and our New World neighbor Canada — may have significantly higher rates of economic mobility by some measures than we do. One study showed that 42% of American men whose fathers were in the bottom fifth of the income distribution remained in the bottom fifth, while in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and Norway the numbers were between 25% and 28%. Even more difficult for Americans to accept is that even in the United Kingdom, the quintessential class-bound society with which we love to compare ourselves, only 30% of men with fathers in the bottom quintile remained there — far fewer than the share in the U.S.

Americans have always seen education, and especially higher education, as the principal engine of economic and social mobility. Most high schools no longer divide students into "college-bound" and "work-bound" tracks. People speak of "college for all" as an unmitigated social good, and understandably so: Americans have been bombarded with a steady barrage of media stories showing the growing differential in lifetime earnings between those with a four-year college degree and those without, and about the disappearance of manufacturing and the accompanying loss of well-paying jobs that do not require a college degree. It seems to follow that everyone should have the chance to go to college if America is to remain the land of opportunity.

But the solution to our social-mobility problem may not be sending more kids to college, if by college we mean only four-year colleges and universities. Except for the United Kingdom, virtually all the European countries that have higher economic-mobility rates than we do also have much stronger vocational-education systems than we do, as well as significantly lower youth-unemployment rates. Evidence from other countries shows that a high-quality vocational-education system designed to serve at least 40% of the youth population can be an important contributor to both economic prosperity and mobility.

Given the evidence from other major economies, the mounting student-debt crisis in America, and high underemployment among young adults with a four-year degree, it is time to reconsider vocational education and focus on policies that could revitalize and modernize career and technical education in the United States.


Until quite recently, only a small share of young people went to college. Through the mid-20th century, vocational education was a mainstream path to help high-school students — mostly male — make their way into the labor market. The American economy was made up primarily of jobs that did not require more than a high-school education, so young people learned traditional trades and crafts in school to prepare to enter the workforce. Three generations ago, vocational education was a perfectly respectable, responsible option that would likely lead to a steady job with an income that could support a family.

But in the second half of the 20th century, manufacturing gradually declined, and the service sector rapidly expanded. In addition, after World War II, the federal and state governments made large investments in expanding access to higher education. States like California and New York spent huge sums building world-class public universities and comprehensive higher-education systems. At the same time, the federal government moved to provide financial aid to students, most notably with the G.I. Bill, allowing more and more Americans to seek a college education.

As a result, vocational education took on a stigma as college became the preferred route to good jobs that paid a family-supporting wage. Not only did vocational education rapidly lose market share in the economy of high schools, but all too often, vocational programs became "dumping grounds" — places to send students deemed unfit for rigorous academic work. While there have always been examples of highly successful vocational programs and schools in both urban and rural America, there have also been notorious examples of vocational schools serving predominantly disadvantaged young people that led only to dead-end jobs.

By the late 1980s, less than half of young Americans were attending some sort of college — which means that more than half were not. By then, Americans had long spoken of college as the path toward economic security and success, and many were concerned that those who didn't go to college were getting left behind. And it seemed they were correct: In 1988, the W. T. Grant Foundation published The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America and The Forgotten Half: Pathways to Success for America's Youth and Young Families, a set of reports showing that, by virtually all measures of social and economic well-being, young people not in college were less well-off than their college-going counterparts. Yet as a society, we seemed to have no serious strategy to help these adolescents make a successful transition into the workforce and, more generally, into adulthood.

Because a college degree remains such a strong indicator of success, and because as a nation we believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at the American Dream, we no longer speak of "non-college youth." In fact, in the two decades following the Forgotten Half reports, high schools had for the most part ended the practice of tracking students into "work-bound" and "college-bound" curriculums. As the movement to raise academic expectations and standards for all students has grown, so has the notion that the central purpose of high school is to prepare all young people for college. Economists warn of the "hollowing out" of the U.S. economy, telling us we are heading into a world in which there will be only two kinds of jobs: high-skill, high-wage jobs requiring at least a four-year degree and low-skill, low-wage jobs for everyone else. No one wants to be left behind.

It's no surprise, then, that by 2008 over 90% of high-school seniors surveyed about their post-graduation plans said they were going to college. By the following October, over two-thirds of graduates were in fact enrolled in some form of post-secondary education. The college attainment rate for young people in their mid-20s, however, paints a different picture. In 2013, only 32% had a four-year degree; 10% had a two-year degree; and another 12% or so had a one-year, post-secondary certificate with value in the labor market. Despite the optimistic talk about "college for all," it appears that the forgotten half has not gone anywhere.

Recent research suggests, however, that some licensure and certificate programs might actually be a better option for some students than a more traditional, two- or four-year degree program, and certainly a better option than dropping out of college with debt. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce has released several reports providing further evidence that the financial returns on education are not simply a function of how much schooling you have had, but what skills you have acquired. According to the Center's studies, there are now very significant overlaps between the earnings of those with licenses or one-year, post-secondary certificates and those with two- and four-year degrees. Most striking, a 2011 study showed that nearly 30% of those with two-year degrees are out-earning the average four-year-degree holder.

In Florida, for example, those who graduated in 2009 with a two-year technical degree were, within two years, out-earning the average young four-year-degree holder by about $10,000. A 2013 study from the Federal Reserve Board of New York documented the struggles of young four-year-degree holders more generally, reporting that over 40% of them are working in jobs that historically have not required a college degree. Given the rising costs of college — plus the average debt burden of $28,400 that young graduates are carrying — these numbers are causing many parents to question the assumption that an investment in a four-year degree really is a guarantee of economic security for their children.

In 2011, Robert Schwartz and two Harvard colleagues published Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century. The report was organized around three questions: First, if less than one young person in three is successfully completing a four-year college degree by age 27, does it really make sense to organize high schools as if college should be the goal for all students? Second, if respected economists are now telling us that at least 30% of the jobs projected over the next decade will be in the "middle skills" category — technician-level jobs requiring some education beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree — shouldn't we start building more pathways from high school to community colleges to prepare students to fill the best of those jobs, especially in high-growth, high-demand fields such as information technology and health care? And third, shouldn't we be learning from the striking success of other countries' vocational systems? After all, countries like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland have built vocational systems that prepare between 40% and 70% of young people to enter the workforce by age 20 with skills and credentials valued by employers, and these countries have healthy economies and much lower youth-unemployment rates than the United States.


In an attempt to answer these questions, we have collaborated with educators and organizations around the country to establish the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a partnership between Jobs for the Future, Harvard Graduate School of Education, and now ten states. The network focuses on helping participating states build "career pathways," which span grades 9 through 14 (high school through community college) and are designed to help young people attain post-secondary degrees and credentials that can launch them into careers in high-growth, high-demand fields — all while keeping open the option of further education later on.

Since we launched the Pathways Network in 2012, a consensus has begun to emerge about the contours of a revitalized career and technical education (CTE) system — one that might begin to reflect some of the lessons from the strongest European systems. This consensus has been reflected in the policies and new funding opportunities created in some of the states we are working in, most notably California, New York, Ohio, and Tennessee, as well as in the Obama administration's "blueprint" for the reauthorization of the Perkins Act, the principal federal program supporting CTE.

The first core principle in the emerging consensus is that we must build career pathways that span secondary and post-secondary education. In replacing the idea of "college for all," we cannot return to an earlier era in which some young people are prepared for college while others are prepared for work immediately after high school. Rather, the new mantra must be that all young people will need some form of post-secondary education or training to be able to thrive in this increasingly demanding economy, but not necessarily a traditional four-year college degree.

Therefore, we must build a set of career-focused pathways leading to post-secondary technical education that sit alongside the strictly academic pathway leading to a four-year college or university. The strongest European programs enroll students at age 16 in a three- or four-year, full-time program that combines three or four days a week of learning at the workplace with a day or two of continued academic class work. Those students emerge from their program with at least the equivalent of one year of post-secondary training — if not the equivalent of a technical associate's degree. No U.S. high-school vocational program currently provides that level of intensive training in an occupational area.

The second core principle is that CTE programs should be much more demand-driven than they currently are. This entails two things. First, program design must be based on a careful analysis of regional labor-market trends. It should be especially focused on those industries and occupations which are not only rapidly growing but require people with a solid foundation of core academic as well as technical skills — in other words, fields with good jobs that pay good wages and have the potential to get young people onto a path that leads to the middle class.

And second, employers from the target occupational sectors need to be at the table from the beginning. They not only help ensure that the programs are designed to equip young people with the knowledge and skills required for success in that sector, but they also provide internships and other forms of workplace learning for participating students throughout the duration of the program.

A third core principle is that all students need to be provided much greater access to career information, awareness, and exposure beginning at least as early as the middle grades. This puts them and their parents in a position to make informed choices among an array of career pathways at some point in their high-school years. We believe all students would benefit from much more systematic exposure to the range of possible careers while in middle and high school, even those who know they are headed for a four-year university. The fact that so many young university graduates are floundering in the labor market tells us that too many students arrive at college with no career plan, choose majors based solely on interest with no reference to the job market, and then find out only upon graduation that they have few marketable skills.

Though the real work of building career pathways happens at the regional labor-market level, some of the major challenges and barriers to success can be addressed only at the state level. By design, career-pathways programs cut across K-12 education as well as the post-secondary education and workforce systems. Each of these systems has its own governance arrangements, funding streams, governmental bureaucracies, and political constituencies. Absent a strong state leadership group committed to addressing regulatory and funding barriers and running political interference, each region is forced to wrestle on its own with such questions as who pays for dual enrollment or how to address employer concerns about liability for 16-year-olds in the workplace.

These state-level principles and strategies can best be seen at work in California, where they undergird the design of the California Career Pathways Trust. Launched in 2014 with a $250 million appropriation, it is perhaps the largest investment any state has ever made in a competitive grants program for career-related education. The Trust is administered by the California Department of Education but was developed collaboratively with the Community College Chancellor's Office and the Workforce Investment Board. It focuses on building regional consortia that bring together high schools, community colleges, and employer associations to build career pathways, spanning grades 9 through 14, in high-skill, high-growth fields designed not only to enable more young people to successfully transition from high school to community college to work, but also to fuel regional economic growth.

In May 2014, the state awarded 39 grants to such consortia. Demand for these competitive grants was so intense that the next month, the legislature decided to appropriate an additional $250 million for a second round this year. On the federal level, in 2014 the Obama administration distributed $100 million in a grant program called Youth CareerConnect based on similar principles.


It is one thing to articulate a set of principles to guide the revitalization and redesign of CTE in our big, diverse country. It is quite another thing to figure out how to build on the strengths of the current system to move us, over time, to the point where at least 40% of young Americans could be enrolled in programs built upon the principles outlined above.

The first step must be to acknowledge that there is no single program model upon which to base a new system. The most important thing is to build on what works. Some states and school districts across the country have developed their own programs and have found some success.

The most effective models take advantage of the resources each community offers to answer that community's specific needs. This means that highly effective CTE programs can take many different shapes. In Massachusetts, for example, there is a well-developed network of full-time, regional vocational schools, in which students experience a curriculum that alternates weekly between academic and industry classes. For decades, such schools have been sending graduates on to two- and four-year colleges or directly into good jobs right out of high school, as students can graduate with post-secondary-level, industry-recognized credentials and real work experience. In other states, there are highly effective, part-time, regional CTE centers that serve students from many high schools, allowing them to work for part of the school day in non-traditional, industry-based laboratories with community business partners and industry experts.

But most high-school students in America do not have access to such high-quality, full-time vocational schools or part-time centers. Consequently, the models we think hold the most promise for achieving much larger scale are two that operate within comprehensive high schools: career academies and early-college high schools.

The "career academies" approach to CTE has a lot going for it. The Linked Learning model currently being implemented in nine California school districts is arguably the highest quality career-focused high-school reform strategy in the country. Certified Linked Learning pathways are built around four elements: rigorous academics, real-world technical skills, work-based learning, and personalized support. Students choose career-themed pathways with an industry focus. Participating high schools have also partnered with local colleges to give the high-school teachers special training and workshops. And schools have arranged for teacher externships with employers in relevant industries, which enable teachers to design projects and assignments that reflect the demands of employers. Relationships with local colleges also provide a smooth pipeline for well-prepared graduates.

There are already several thousand career academies operating all over the country, including more than a thousand in California. The National Academy Foundation, launched over 30 years ago by Sanford Weill, then-CEO of American Express and later Citigroup, currently sponsors 667 academies across the country. These academies serve about 80,000 students, two-thirds of whom are African American or Latino. NAF academies operate in five career areas: finance, health care, pre-engineering, information technology, and hospitality and tourism. They have very high high-school graduation and college-going rates. Over half of NAF graduates complete a four-year degree, and 90% of graduates went on to work in their NAF career areas.

A more recent development in CTE programs are STEM-focused early-college high schools (ECHS). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started the ECHS movement in 2002 with grants to several organizations to expand existing schools or start new ones, along with a grant to Jobs for the Future to provide policy development, technical assistance, and coordination to the school developers and states. Twelve years later, there are 280 early colleges with approximately 80,000 students; 70% are students of color. The ECHS graduation rate is 90%, and the average ECHS student graduates high school with 38 college credits. Roughly 30% graduate with an associate's degree or a post-secondary certificate.

At its best, the career-academy model integrates rigorous academics with a sequence of technical courses, augmented with an aligned internship in a particular career area. However, most academies have weak or non-existent connections to post-secondary programs in the same field. They don't see building these relationships as part of their mission — they are primarily in the high-school reform business, not the career-preparation business. Conversely, early-college high schools came into being explicitly to blend high school and college, and they have definitively demonstrated that their acceleration model can help entire cohorts of low-income and minority kids seamlessly navigate the transition to college — and leave high school with a year or more of free college credit. While roughly one-third of early colleges have a STEM focus, there has been less focus in the ECHS model on careers. However, there is now growing interest in the ECHS community in aligning high-school and college technical courses into career pathways for young people.

A good example of a school that combines the strengths of these two models is Wake Early College of Health and Sciences, founded in 2006 by WakeMed, a major Raleigh hospital, in partnership with the Wake County School District and Wake Technical Community College. The school gives students first-hand exposure to health-care careers, along with the opportunity to earn associates' degrees along with their high-school diplomas. Several have earned certifications as nursing assistants and emergency medical technicians. The school's graduation rate has remained well above 90% for its first four classes, and the class of 2013 achieved a 100% graduation rate. Every student learns not only in the classroom, but also on Wake Tech's health-sciences campus and in WakeMed's main hospital. Students participate in job shadowing, internships, and other activities that put them in direct contact with practicing medical professionals. They get firsthand exposure to health-care careers and learn from people in those jobs about the skills — hard and soft — necessary for success. They see STEM in action every day.

Several new STEM ECHS programs are now being sponsored by major companies: New York City's P-TECH is sponsored by IBM and partners with the New York City Department of Education and the Early College Initiative at CUNY. Graduates of this six-year program should emerge with Associate of Applied Science degrees in computer systems technology or electromechanical engineering technology; the first class is in its fourth year. Governor Cuomo and the New York legislature have funded 16 P-TECH adaptations across the state, and there are adaptations of the model in Chicago and Connecticut as well. SAP, the German business-solutions company, is sponsoring several early-college programs: One just opened in New York City, and another will open in Boston in 2015. Paramount Farms, a major agricultural company in California's Central Valley, is sponsoring the development of five early colleges focused on agriculture business management, plant sciences, and agriculture mechanics, the areas of expertise needed in the Valley's agriculture industry.

When the strengths of the career-academy and ECHS models are combined, as they are at Wake Early College of Health and Sciences and the growing network of P-TECH schools, students have an opportunity to demonstrate that they are genuinely college- and career-ready. The early-college movement has definitively demonstrated that the best predictor of college readiness is the successful completion of credit-bearing college courses, preferably taken on a college campus. It follows, then, that the best predictor of career readiness is likely to be the successful completion of a workplace internship — something that is built into the Wake, SAP, Paramount Farms, and P-TECH models.


While some CTE programs have been enormously successful at the local and regional levels, scaling up this success will be a challenge in a country as large and diverse as the United States. Other countries have well-established national vocational-education systems; Switzerland, in particular, has much to teach us. As in the United States, the Swiss education system is state-based; schools are the responsibility of the cantons, and there is a federal office that oversees vocational education and provides substantial leadership, quality control, and support.

The Swiss Vocational Education and Training system enrolls students at age 16, and programs typically last three or four years and combine learning at a workplace with continued academic study. Fully 70% of Swiss students enroll in VET. Not only is there no stigma, VET is the norm, not the exception. Almost by definition, the system is serving a broad range of students (within the bounds of Switzerland's relatively limited cultural diversity), and the range of occupations for which VET is the preferred preparation is broad.

Crucially, Swiss employers are deeply engaged in investing in the development of the future workforce. Swiss employer associations take a lead role in developing occupational standards for their industry sector, and they work in partnership with educators in developing curricula aligned with the requirements and expectations of the workplace. They also participate in assessing the performance of students at the end of their apprenticeships in order to ensure that they meet national standards. Most important, they provide paid three- or four-year apprenticeship slots and assume the costs of providing training and coaching for their apprentices. It is hard to overstate just how different this is from the role that employers play in the American CTE system, where the norm for even the most engaged employers is participation on an advisory committee, some opportunities for job shadowing, and perhaps the provision of a few short-term, unpaid internships.

The VET program is a boon to the entire Swiss economy. The youth-unemployment rate in Switzerland is the lowest in Europe, consistently between 3% and 7%. Swiss employers have found that, over three years, the contributions to bottom-line productivity by apprentices more than offset the investment in wages (approximately $700 a month, growing to $1,100 by year three) and associated training costs. In fact, those employers find the program such a good investment that they neither require nor receive any direct subsidy from the government for employing apprentices.

While the Swiss VET has many strengths we could learn from, it would be foolhardy to assume that we can just transplant the Swiss system to the United States. In fact, the differences between the two countries help to highlight two of the main challenges that stand in the way of implementing a widespread vocational system here.

The first concerns the quality of prior academic preparation young people would need in order to start a rigorous career pathway in high school. One big advantage of the Swiss and some other European education systems is that compulsory schooling ends at the end of "lower" secondary education, typically ninth grade. This seems to have two main effects. It concentrates the attention of the system on ensuring that, to the extent possible, all young people get the academic underpinnings they will need during those years to make a successful transition to whatever comes next. And it says to young people who are bored with school that, if they can hang on through ninth grade, there is an attractive option that will enable them to complete their high-school education in a much more applied-learning mode, spending most of their time learning and working alongside adults in a workplace rather than only with their contemporaries in classrooms. Switzerland's impressive math performance on the PISA assessments, taken when students are in ninth grade, suggests that these incentives work for both the system and the students.

In the United States, the early-college high-school data cited above suggest that offering young people the opportunity to get started on college and career early can strengthen the development of core academic skills. If students in the middle grades can see a way to accelerate their path through school and into the workplace, it can motivate them to get the academic foundation they need. The challenge for the system is to provide all kids at least through tenth grade with a solid floor of literacy, quantitative-reasoning, and critical-thinking skills. The jury is very much out on whether we have the capacity or the will to do this, but one constituency whose vote will be crucial is employers — who present the second big challenge.

American employers and their associations typically do not play a significant role in education and workforce preparation. While they may participate on advisory committees for vocational schools and centers, they play virtually no role in the comprehensive high schools most students attend. However, many employers do have close working relationships with community colleges, often turning to them for customized training to upgrade the skills of incumbent workers. Rather than asking employers to get entangled with the school system, an alternative strategy is to bring employers and community-college leaders together — first to set the standards and specifications for the career pathways, and then to map backward to connect the high schools.

Of course, it will not be possible to build a Swiss-style "dual system" in the United States, in which high-school students spend three days a week at a workplace. But it may be possible to build a system in which over a three- or four-year period, spanning grades 11 through 13 or 14 and including summers, students get six months of workplace learning built into a career-pathway program.


Given the historically low status of vocational education in the United States, it is understandable that parents, especially low-income parents, are skeptical that anything labeled "vocational" can provide their children with a route into the middle class. It is therefore important for advocates of the new CTE to emphasize that career pathways represent an alternative route into post-secondary education, not an alternative to college. Likewise, it is helpful to highlight programs that provide a strong STEM foundation, in fields such as health care and information technology, rather than the more traditional trades such as carpentry, automotive repair, and plumbing. The reality, of course, is that these latter jobs today also typically require a strong mathematical foundation and some computing skills — and pay a family-supporting wage.

If the new, improved CTE is to gain sufficient political momentum to become a significant engine of economic mobility, several things must happen. First, well-structured partnerships need to be built among high schools, post-secondary institutions, and employers. This would give parents and students visible evidence that career pathways that begin in high school can lead seamlessly into post-secondary education and employment. Second, exposure to myriad careers — and the education and training requirements for entering those careers — must begin early and become a much more systematic component of the middle-school and high-school experience.

Third, we must consider the question of which students participate in CTE. Many people think that vocational education is a wonderful thing — for other people's children. If CTE continues to be seen primarily as a solution for at-risk youth and for students who can't be expected to do serious academic work, it will never gain the resources and political support it needs to be fully effective. Most important, it will never gain the serious engagement of the employer community. Employers may be persuaded to participate out of a sense of corporate social responsibility, but unless and until CTE becomes a mainstream system serving a very broad range of young people, employers will not see investing in CTE as a way of building their own future workforce.

Many years ago, sociologist William Julius Wilson argued that social programs directly focused on the poor were less likely to gain political traction than programs that were targeted especially to help the poor but were embedded within a more universal design, as in the case of Medicare and Social Security. The career-pathways movement needs to be designed and understood as a strategy to improve the economic prospects of a broad range of students, not just the poor. Given the underemployment of young college graduates and the rising student-debt burden — along with the growing evidence about the high returns on two-year technical degrees — middle-class parents are beginning to re-examine the notion that the only successful outcome of a high-school education is enrollment in a four-year college.

A four-year degree, especially for low-income youth and minority students, remains a prize worth pursuing — and, given the low attainment rates among those groups, we should focus on increasing their access, retention, and completion at four-year institutions. But two-year degrees and one-year post-secondary certificates also pay off. We should strengthen and expand the pathways into careers that can propel more young people into the middle class.

Nancy Hoffman is a Vice President and Senior Advisor at Jobs for the Future and co-leader of the Pathways to Prosperity Network.

Robert Schwartz is Professor Emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-leader of the Pathways to Prosperity Network. This essay is adapted from a paper prepared for the Fordham Institute's conference on Education for Upward Mobility.


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