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All Students Need Career and Technical Education

Richard Buery Jr. is KIPP's chief of policy and public affairs. Before joining KIPP, Richard served as deputy mayor for New York City mayor (and presidential aspirant) Bill de Blasio, and he also founded the Children's Aid College Prep Charter School in the South Bronx. Richard will be writing about why charters can help solve segregation, why career and technical education matters, and how to reduce the cost of college attendance.

A college education provides students with life-changing experiences, meaningful skills and networks, and, upon completion, an incredibly powerful credential. With it, a young person, on average, will earn a higher income and have greater job security than his or her peers who did not earn a college degree. At KIPP, we are proud that our graduates earn college degrees at three times the rate of other students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. But young people without a bachelor's degree deserve great careers, too.

A college degree remains the most reliable path to opportunity in America today. But the reality is that not every young person will graduate from college, or even high school; these are milestones disproportionately afforded to students who are white, affluent, or in the middle class. In 2014, the percentage of high school students from low-income backgrounds who graduated on time was just 77 percent, compared with 90 percent nationally for other students. And while 60 percent of white students who start college finish in six years, just 40 percent of black students do. Just 11 percent of students from a low-income background have a bachelor's degree.

We can do better. Closing the college completion gap between wealthy students and poorer students, and between white students and students of color, is critical. When students do not complete college, we need to make sure that it is not because of poor academic preparation in high school, ineffective college counseling, or financial or social struggles. A range of nonprofit organizations, K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and other institutions have implemented innovative policies to close those gaps. KIPP recently issued a report describing many of those innovations and pointing out how the federal government can help.

But even if we closed these gaps completely, we know that some students will choose to go straight into the workforce. Others will pursue an alternative post-secondary credential. And even bachelor's degree-bound students often take an indirect route to get there. Helping these students prepare for an increasingly competitive job market while they are still in high school is essential. The same holds true for students who plan to go directly to a bachelor's degree program. We have found that helping young people explore their professional passions while they are still in high school plays a big role in helping them choose the right college and persist to graduation. 

And many young people struggle to land a strong first job whether or not they have a college degree. College graduates who take a first job that doesn't require a college degree earn $10,000 less each year ten years after graduation. For young people of color, employment discrimination adds additional barriers. Unemployment rates for both black and Latinx college graduates and recent high school graduates are higher than for white students with the same credentials. 

Implementing innovative career and technical education (CTE) programs in our high schools can help. Taking upper-level CTE classes is associated with higher future earnings. For college-going students, exposure to CTE can help them select a college that's a good fit and help them chart a purposeful course when they are there. For those who don't go to college right away, CTE can lead to a credential that makes them more competitive in the job market. Unfortunately, participation in CTE courses has declined nationally, down more than 25 percent between 1982 and 2013

Historically, KIPP has not been focused on CTE. But after years of research and student input, we are evolving. The best CTE classes cultivate creativity, collaboration, and innovation, which we will feature in our programming to help students build the "hard" and "soft" skills required in colleges and careers alike. Our "College Knowledge and Career Success" seminar will focus on both concrete tools, like financial literacy, and more abstract tools, such as finding a "passion, purpose, and plan." Our "KIPP Through College" (KTC) counselors work with all students and have power to expand our college counseling program to better support students' career-focused decision-making. So, a KTC counselor might help one student align their aspiration to become a doctor to the university that has the best pre-med graduation rates for first generation students and then help a different student find a credentialing program that prepares them for a career with room for advancement. We want to get as good at career-oriented advising as we are at college counseling.

We must make the most of CTE's benefits while avoiding the risk that some students will be inappropriately tracked to less rigorous coursework—a factor that may have contributed to CTE's decline. And we can prepare all of our students for college, while applying the lens of career aspiration to make sure they are positioned to choose the pathway that best fits the future they seek. Students must weigh complex factors of time, money, and opportunity to navigate education and professional options after high school and for their lives. Their choices are complicated, so our commitment must be simple: We will be there. We must prepare all students for the road ahead, whatever it may be, with an unyielding belief in their power and potential.

Richard Buery, Jr.

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