Four-year schools not only pathway to a career

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Rising higher education costs, growing student debt, and high youth unemployment have brought to question whether the "college for all" education strategy is working. But the problem isn't so much the strategy as it is how we go about defining and achieving the goal.

The strategy can work if we view "college" more broadly than a four-year institution. "College for all" should include community and technical colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeships. The research is clear -- education and training beyond a high school diploma is essential to achieving a middle class or better lifestyle.

If we envision this broader range of "college" choices as the means by which we connect to a career, then we can make those pathways more apparent to middle and high school students through comprehensive guidance counseling and career exploration, including greater exposure to careers and work experience both in and outside the classroom.

When we promote "college" as the reason for performing well in the classroom, we run the risk of alienating those students who don't view academics as the ultimate goal. If we also focus on career pathways, though, our education system increases the chances of igniting a student's passion for learning. Young people are better able to learn and more willing to apply themselves when they see the connection between what they're learning and the world around them.

Throughout the state, cutting-edge Career and Technical Education classes allow students to dive into careers as diverse as information technology, health care, agriculture, and business. Quality CTE programs bring the relevance of the working world into the classroom, making learning more meaningful and sparking the desire to pursue education beyond high school.

Far from limiting a student's academic horizons, programs like Evergreen school district's medical science program provide education in high-demand health care and medical careers in collaboration with Clark College and the local medical industry. There are many of these programs throughout the state, but because they are perceived as not preparing a student for a four-year university, the programs are not recognized for the dreams they help achieve.

More exit, re-entry points

To create more pathways to success, our higher education system must be capable of enrolling and educating students at any stage in their life and careers, not just directly from high school. This means multiple exit and re-entry points with educational credentials that provide a wider range of time frames, and that also can stack together to build higher levels of education achievement. So for example, a student who earns an industry-recognized certificate at Clark College can later add a combination of academic and other technical degrees based on career needs and interest.

Key to this is business and industry engagement in our schools, especially when students are in middle and high school. Research indicates that work experience is a vital part of youth development. By providing mentoring, job shadowing and other work experience opportunities such as internships and part-time employment, businesses can help youth see the connection between the workplace and the classroom. This helps students and also helps the businesses that will eventually employ them.

The state's Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board has put forth the above strategies to build Washington's multiple pathway education and training system as part of the state's proposed workforce development strategy. You can review the proposed strategies in more detail and comment on them (deadline is Aug. 27) at: http://www.wtb.wa.gov/highskills2012.asp.

Eleni Papadakis of Olympia is the executive director of the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, a partnership of business, labor and government. She is also a former restaurant owner and a national consultant on workforce issues.