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Creating Sustainable Education Pathways

What is the compelling question or challenge?

How can pathway opportunities be developed and implemented so that underrepresented high school students are better prepared for university enrollment and workforce employment?

What do we know now about this Big Idea and what are the key research questions we need to address?

The issue of college and career readiness is a concern for young people in the United States. Even though high school graduation rates reached record highs in 2016, African American and Hispanic students were persistently at-risk of not graduating on time and exhibited lower graduation rates (76% and 79%, respectively) compared to their Caucasian and Asian/Pacific Islander counterparts (88% and 91%, respectively) (Balingit, 2017). Counterintuitive to these record high graduation rates is that once students reach the postsecondary level, many of them are unprepared for the coursework and rigor that is expected from them. For example, in 2016 it was estimated that 56% of African American college freshman and 45% of Latino college freshman enrolled in English or math remedial courses that cover fundamentals that should have been learned in high school (Complete College America, 2016; Jimenez et al., 2016). What is surprising is that these courses not only increase the time needed to graduate, but also yield a completion rate close to 10% (National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2010). Therefore, not only do college remedial courses increase the length of time spent in college but they also decrease the likelihood that a student will graduate. Critically, these remedial courses are estimated to cost students and families across the U.S approximately $1.3 Billion every year (Jimenez et al., 2016). In sum, remedial education offered within the postsecondary system is not cost effective and actively hampers college graduation. The high frequency in which remedial courses are taken demonstrates that college readiness within our high schools must be improved and, therefore, investigation of interventions aimed at increasing college and career readiness is warranted.

The literature on college and career readiness suggests that the use of career academies, or small learning-based communities that endow students with transferable skills for both academics and the workforce, is a promising route (Kemple & Willner, 2008; Fernandez & Sun, 2015; Sun & Spinney, 2017). The use of career academies to create pathways for success has a rich history when examining benefits to students’ labor market outcome and employability after high school (Kemple & Willner, 2008; Symonds, Schwartz, & Ferguson, 2011). For example, Kemple and Willner (2008) showed that individuals who participated in a career academy during high school earned an average income that was 17% more than their non-academy counterparts over an eight-year period. The effectiveness of career academies on college readiness, however, has only recently been suggested (Brathwaite & Barnett, In Press). Specifically, a recent survey study conducted with 148 alumni of various NAF career academies indicated that 93% of respondents felt they were able to succeed when beginning postsecondary studies. Furthermore, Brathwaite and Barnett (In Press) indicated that the number of remedial college courses taken by academy alumni was lower than the national average. Even though the Brathwaite and Barnett study is correlational and must be replicated with larger samples before being generalized to all career academy programs, it suggests that participation in a high school career academy facilitates a pathway to college readiness.

Given the importance of both high school and college education in today’s labor market, as well as the monetary and time investment required for remedial education within the postsecondary system, a few key research questions regarding college and career readiness must be addressed within the next 10 years if the U.S. is to remain a leader in the global economy: 1) what actions can be done at the high-school level to ensure students are prepared for the rigors of postsecondary studies; 2) what is the performance of these students once they enter the postsecondary system; and 3) what are the labor market outcomes of these students?

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