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How "Opportunity Pluralism" Can Renew K-12 Public Education
“College for all” has served as the primary goal of K-12 schools for at least the last twenty-five years. A college degree, politicians and policymakers proclaim, is an almost certain pathway to upward mobility and adult success. President Barack Obama called the degree the “surest ticket to the middle class.” But restoring genuine pluralism in America’s institutions—as suggested in this publication—requires rethinking “college for all” and substituting “opportunity pluralism” in its stead. Such an approach would create multiple K-12 pathways for young people that can provide them with the knowledge and relationships they need to pursue opportunity and flourish even without a college degree.
Opportunity pluralism is in sync with what young people and the American public prefer. The country’s domestic realists in the ideological heartland want K-12 schools and their partners to provide young people with many education and training pathways to opportunity. Civic entrepreneurs are working with K-12 leaders, employers, and other community members to develop these pathways.
College Degrees Have Lost Their Glow
A recent Purpose of Education Index survey reports that getting kids ready for college dropped from a number ten pre-pandemic education priority for the American public to the forty-seventh priority out of fifty-seven today. Other surveys report similar findings: a March 2023 Wall Street Journal-NORC poll found almost six in ten Americans (56 percent) do not think a degree is worth the cost, up from 47 percent in 2017 and 40 percent in 2013; skepticism today is strongest among those 18 to 34 years old and those with college degrees. The Index also reports that Americans’ priority one for students is “developing practical skills” (such as managing personal finances and the ability to do basic reading, writing, and arithmetic), with only one in four (26 percent) thinking schools currently do this.
Gen Z—those born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s—agrees. Around half (51 percent) of Gen Z high schoolers plan to pursue a degree, down more than ten percentage points pre-pandemic and 20 points since shortly after COVID began, with Gen Z middle schoolers even less likely to say they plan to go to college. Moreover, Gen Z high schoolers aspire to continuous learning both on the job and throughout life. Two-thirds (65 percent), for example, believe education after high school is necessary, and prefer options like online courses, boot camps, internships, and apprenticeships; more than half (53 percent) want formal learning opportunities throughout life. Only a third say their ideal learning occurs simply through coursework.
Like the American public, Gen Z high schoolers have a practical mindset. They want academics but also want to learn life skills like financial literacy, communication, and problem-solving, which they say are overlooked in classrooms. Nearly eight in ten (78 percent) believe it important to develop these skills before they graduate so they are better prepared to choose career paths. They also have an entrepreneurial spirit, with a third wanting to start their own business.
K-12 Career Pathways Programs
K-12 education is responding to this opinion shift by creating pathways programs that immerse young people in education, training, and work by connecting them with local employers. They include internships and apprenticeships; career and technical education; dual enrollment in high school and postsecondary education; career academies; boot camps that teach specific skills; and staffing, placement, and other support services for those seeking jobs. These programs also offer the important opportunity to build social capital or strong relationships between participants and adult mentors.
These programs have been created in both “top-down” and “bottom-up” ways. “Top down” programs include those created by governors and legislators from both political parties—see, for example, Delaware Pathways by Democratic Governor Jack Markell and Tennessee’s Drive to 55 Alliance by Republican Governor Bill Haslam. Similar programs exist in politically diverse states like California, Colorado, Indiana, and Texas. “Bottom-up” programs between K-12 schools, employers, and civic partners include 3DE Schools in Atlanta; YouthForce NOLA in New Orleans; Washington, D.C.’s CityWorks D.C.; and Cristo Rey, an effort comprised of 38 Catholic high schools in 24 states. Other organizations like Pathways to Prosperity Network, P-Tech Schools, and Linked Learning Alliance form regional or local partnerships that provide advice and practical assistance to those creating pathways programs.
Successful programs have five features: an academic curriculum linked with labor market needs that awards participants an employer recognized credential; work experience with mentors; advisors to help participants navigate the program; a written civic compact among K-12 schools, employers, and other partners; and policies and regulations that support the program.
These programs work. A Fordham Institute study details five benefits to career pathways programs: they are not a path away from college, since students taking these courses are just as likely as peers to attend college; they increase graduation rates; they improve college outcomes, especially for women and disadvantaged students; they boost students' incomes; they enhance other skills like perseverance and self-efficacy.
Additional evidence comes from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families’ Pathways to Work Evidence Clearinghouse. Examining over 8,000 studies that identified 221 pathway interventions, it found that 38 percent of the interventions “improved outcomes in at least one domain of interest.”
Another study is a “gold standard” randomized lottery of Boston summer work for low-income high school students. It found “broad benefits for students,” including being more likely to graduate on time and less likely to drop out of school, better attendance and grade point averages, and improved work habits, soft skills, and aspirations for further education.
Finally, the 38-member international Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) studied the link between high school career experiences and adult career outcomes in eight countries including the United States. It concluded that “secondary school students who explore, experience, and think about their futures in work frequently encounter lower levels of unemployment, receive higher wages, and are happier in their careers as adults.”
K-12 Career Education
Schools should offer career education programs early on so that young people can integrate classroom learning with information and practical learning about careers and work. This approach has positive consequences: the United States Youth Development Study that follows those born in the mid-1970s to age 30 finds a positive relationship between working part time at ages fourteen and fifteen and those likely to agree at age 30 that they had a job they wanted.
An effective career education program ensures that by the end of high school, young people develop career aspirations and have the ability to continue acquiring the knowledge, skills, and relationships they need to reach their potential. OECD has documented program models, one of which begins with early childhood and continues through high school. Another focuses on high school and integrates a student’s high school life with increasing levels of employer engagement organized by three categories: exposure, exploration and experience.
Exposure activities introduce jobs and careers to children and young people. These begin in preschool and include reading books or telling stories about jobs and careers and visits from those who work in different jobs. Exposure also entails age appropriate outside-the-school experiences like workplace visits as young people move through K-12.
Exploration activities investigate work by engaging young people in activities like volunteer work, job shadowing, resume development, and practice job interviews. These activities typically begin in middle school and continue through high school.
Experience activities include work-based learning where young people engage in sustained and supervised projects and mentorships, including internships and apprenticeships. These opportunities are an options multiplier, creating bridges to other opportunities that lead to full-time jobs, more education, or both.
These approaches can be combined with programs that use artificial intelligence to create assessments that help young people discover personal strengths and aptitudes and match them to potential careers. YouScience, for example, has assessments that include brain games for middle and high school students that do this.
Career education deepens young people’s knowledge of the culture of work. It also helps them develop social networks, especially the mentoring relationships and professional networks that help them throughout life. Finally, it fosters a young person’s agency, or their capacity to aspire, create, and navigate the pathways that turn ambitions into reality.
A K-12 Opportunity Program for Institutional Renewal
These pathways programs aim to ensure young people acquire two foundational elements that allow them to pursue opportunity and human flourishing: knowledge and skills together with relationships and networks. As the adage goes, it’s not only what you know but who you know. Opportunity combines profitable knowledge and priceless relationships, economic and social exchange, to create an opportunity equation: Knowledge + Networks = Opportunity. Pathways programs also advance what law professor Joseph Fishkin calls opportunity pluralism, offering “a variety of paths one might pursue, or enterprises in which one might engage because people have diverse views about what constitutes a good life, and…different preferences about which social roles and jobs they prefer.”
On the K-12 level, opportunity program differs from the vocational education of old that placed students into different tracks and occupational destinations based mostly on family background. By contrast, opportunity pluralism offers additional ways to access education and training where credentials are awarded to verify an individual has completed a course of studies—credentials that can become building blocks to a degree. Some colleges are starting to “unbundle” degrees into building blocks, or stackable credentials, that are earned while working and lead to new types of associate or bachelor’s degrees.
Mapping Upward, a U.S. Department of Education project, provides technical assistance to four community college networks comprising 12 colleges that embed stackable, industry recognized credentials within a new type of associate degree programs. And a recent study of the Virginia Community College System shows that such programs typically increase employment by four percentage points and quarterly wages by $375.
Opportunity programs provide other benefits to participants, communities, and society beyond the immediate success of participants getting good jobs. They help young people develop an occupational identity and vocational self that assist them in achieving other goals while creating faster and cheaper ways to prepare individuals for jobs. These programs cultivate the connections and bonds essential to innovation, economic dynamism, and a flourishing local civil society.
A Governing Agenda
K-12 education issues are often cast as a culture war between left and right, a story that divides Americans based on what we want from K-12 schools. This story is mostly wrong and creates a false narrative that ignores a stubborn fact: Americans broadly agree that we should replace “college for all” with “opportunity pluralism,” or the recognition that a college degree is one of many pathways to success for young people.
Opportunity programs reside in the ideological heartland, a term coined by policy analyst Ryan Streeter, to describe a shared state of mind rather than a physical place—where most Americans live politically. They may lean left or right or belong to that forgotten group called moderates, but they care more for practical action than extreme culture war posturing. “The American public is not nearly as partisan or polarized as you’ve been told,” writes political scientist Anthony Fowler. “Most Americans…on most issues [are] somewhere in the middle.”
But broad agreement in the ideological heartland does not imply implementation uniformity. The give and take of negotiating legislation and regulatory proposals will produce programs and priorities that differ, or implementation pluralism. That’s all for the better as we test new approaches and tailor them to community needs and use states and local communities as “laboratories of democracy.”
Opportunity pluralism can provide policymakers with a common-sense governing agenda that renews the institution of K-12 public education. It’s a program led by civic pluralists who seek to nurture civil society by building different K-12 pathways programs for young people. Taken together, it suggests a sea change in education—that has the potential to allow young people to flourish and ease our seemingly intractable political divides at the same time.
Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program and a former United States Assistant Secretary of Education for Policy.