Despite decades of efforts to reform education, and billions of dollars of expenditures, the harsh reality is that America is still failing to prepare millions of its young people to lead successful lives as adults. Evidence of this failure is everywhere: in the dropout epidemic that plagues our high schools and colleges; in the harsh fact that just 30 percent of our young adults earn a bachelor's degree by age 27; and in teen and young adult employment rates not seen since the Great Depression.
Today, the Pathways to Prosperity Project, which is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is releasing a major new report that examines the reasons for our failure to prepare so many young adults, and advances an exciting vision for how the United States might regain the leadership in educational attainment it held for over a century. Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century contends that our national strategy for education and youth development has been too narrowly focused on an academic, classroom-based approach. It is now clear that this strategy has produced only incremental gains in achievement and attainment, even as many other nations are leapfrogging the United States. In response, the report advocates development of a comprehensive pathways network to serve youth in high school and beyond.
This pathways system would be based on three essential elements. The first is the development of a broader vision of school reform that embraces multiple pathways to help young people successfully navigate the journey from adolescence to adulthood. The report contends that at present, we place far too much emphasis on a single pathway to success: attending and graduating from a four-year college. Yet only 30 percent of young adults successfully complete this preferred pathway. Meanwhile, even in the second decade of the 21st century, most jobs do not require a bachelor's. The report notes that while the United States is expected to create 47 million jobs in the 10-year period ending in 2018, only a third of these jobs will require a bachelor's or higher degree. Almost as many jobs - some 30 percent - will only require an associate's degree or a post-secondary occupational credential. Given these realities, the report argues we need to broaden the range of high-quality pathways that we offer young adults. This would include far more emphasis on career counseling and high-quality career education, as well as apprenticeship programs and community colleges as viable routes to well-paying jobs.
Second, the report argues that we need to ask our nation's employers to play a greatly expanded role in supporting the pathways system, and in providing more opportunities for young adults to participate in work-based learning and actual jobs related to their programs of study. Third, the report contends that we need to develop a new social compact between society and our young people. The compact's central goal would be that by the time they reach their mid-20s, every young adult will be equipped with the education and experience he or she needs to lead a successful life as an adult. Achieving this goal would require far bigger contributions from the nation's employers and governments.
"We are the only developed nation that depends so exclusively on its higher education system as the sole institutional vehicle to help young people transition from secondary school to careers, and from adolescence to adulthood," says Robert Schwartz, academic dean and professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, who heads the Pathways to Prosperity Project. As the first president of Achieve, Schwartz has been a key supporter of the need to raise expectations and academic standards for all young people. But in recent years, Schwartz has become increasingly concerned about the "college for all" movement, especially as that movement has led states to allow the admissions requirements of four-year colleges and universities to become the default curriculum for all high school students. "Unless we are willing to provide more flexibility and choice in the last two years of high school, and more opportunities for students to pursue program options that link work and learning, we will continue to lose far too many young people along the path to graduation," he says.
"People don't realize how far behind other nations we have fallen. Some of the international comparisons in the report will truly shock people who assume that we lead the world in education and youth development," adds Pathways co-chair Ronald Ferguson, a senior lecturer in education and public policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Harvard Kennedy School, and director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. "Crafting a 21st century system that takes lessons from abroad but is tailored to the particulars of our own unique society will require our best effort. It can't be a superficial process and still succeed on the scale that we need it to."
The report notes that even as many young adults are failing to earn a post-secondary degree, they have also been hit far harder than older adults by unemployment in the Great Recession. Indeed, the percentage of teens and young adults who have jobs is now at its lowest level since the end of World War II. This has dire implications, because employment in the teen and young adult years can have such a positive impact on future prospects for employment and earnings.
The report was developed over two years of effort that included both research and working closely with partners interested the pathways challenge. An unusually wide range of organizations were involved in the project, including major corporations, leaders from K-12 and higher education, the non-profit community, and government. The project has also been involved in "on the ground" work in several different regions where it has collaborated with people and organizations eager to develop solutions to the challenge. So far, the Project has worked with partners in Silicon Valley, Illinois and Boston, as well as with leaders interested in developing more effective pathways to careers in health care.