Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Pathways We Need to College and Good Jobs

It takes partnerships among school districts, higher education, employers and community leaders to unlock the potential for more students to earn a degree that leads to significantly higher lifetime earnings. States can do a lot to make that happen.

Nursing instruction at San Jacinto College
Nursing instruction at San Jacinto College in Houston. The college is among those that allow students to accumulate credits toward a degree while in high school. (Photo: San Jacinto College)
Last month at San Jacinto College in Houston, I walked through a medical simulation lab with Margarita Arce, a first-year nursing student. She showed me how she and her classmates use realistic, interactive mannequins to take vital signs, practice inserting tubes and catheters, and monitor symptoms. At age 18, she’s on track to become a registered nurse next year — not just debt-free, but for free.

For students like Margarita, it’s easy to see the value of college. But to many others it’s unclear how education after high school will help them realize their dreams and earn a good wage. Today, only about a third of Americans have high confidence in higher education, and that percentage is in decline.

I understand the cynicism. Many who do go to college graduate with debt that their paychecks can’t cover. Their journey took them across the stage at graduation, but not necessarily to a great job. Worse yet, some don’t finish their degree yet still end up with staggering debt, without a credential or a clear path forward.

But there’s resounding evidence that college still unlocks opportunity. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, after accounting for a range of factors the lifetime earnings of a worker with a bachelor’s degree are $1.2 million higher, on average, than those of a worker with only a high school diploma.

Every student deserves the support they need to build the future they want. That’s why our foundation supports school districts, higher education institutions and community partners working to build and strengthen structured education pathways designed with this end in mind: two- and four-year degrees that lead to in-demand, well-paying jobs.

For Margarita, that meant taking college courses while still in high school and working with trusted advisers who helped her see and stay on the path to a nursing career. Across Texas, students from low-income backgrounds can access dual enrollment for free — and many districts work with community colleges to offer courses to all students at low or no cost.

Texas is one of several states taking concrete steps to ensure that more students can access high-quality pathways, and more should follow suit. That wouldn’t just help millions of students see more value from their degrees, it would also strengthen the workforce and drive economic mobility in our communities.

Here are three steps other states can take to realize that potential:

• Forge partnerships to build high-quality pathways that set students up for success. In Houston, high schools, colleges and business partners worked together to identify high-demand, high-wage, high-growth jobs, then established high school and college programs accordingly.

That’s unique, because these systems weren’t designed to work together. They use different data, have different motivators and, typically, different goals. The pathways approach unifies these distinct sectors with a shared goal of student — and community — success.

Margarita’s nursing pathway was made possible in part because her high school, college and local employers had access to good data and committed to share it across sectors. But few states can currently access all the data they need to understand what happens to students when they transition to college and then to careers.

• Enable students to enroll in college programs while still in high school. Through an innovative nurse-in-training program at her high school, Margarita simultaneously earned her high school diploma and accumulated credits toward a nursing degree. After graduation, she matriculated at San Jacinto College with transferable credits in hand.

This model, called dual enrollment (or dual credit), saves students time and money, gives them a jump-start on college coursework and instills the confidence that they are college material. Since 2001, the number of students participating in dual enrollment programs nationwide has more than tripled — and in Texas it’s quintupled.

To keep up that momentum, Texas lawmakers adopted legislation that rewards high schools when students meet college, career or military-readiness requirements; increased financial aid for dual enrollment students and incentivized connecting students from low-income backgrounds with this opportunity; and provided additional state aid to community colleges to help students access and complete programs that lead to in-demand jobs.

• Provide high-quality advising so students get — and stay — on track. There's an all-too-common disconnect between students’ aspirations and their opportunities to make them real. They may not know what college or job is right for them, or they might have a career in mind but no clear idea of how to get there.

The most fortunate students have advisers who ensure they don’t have to take on these questions alone. But on average, the high school student to adviser ratio is over 400 to 1, and those advisers are tasked with much more than giving college advice.

At Carver High School in Houston, I sat down with four seniors who told me about how personalized advising through a national nonprofit called OneGoal helped them prepare for their next steps. Together, they toured colleges, navigated the financial aid and application processes, and learned about careers they hadn’t considered. The best part? OneGoal’s support won’t end when they cross the high school graduation stage; they'll continue to work together for the first year after high school.

If more states realize the transformative power of education pathways, they’d help build a future where everyone has the chance to reach their full potential — no matter how much money they have or where they happened to be born.

Mark Suzman is the chief executive officer and a board member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
From Our Partners