Students who can’t afford or may not be ready to enter a four-year college after high school graduation often find themselves at a difficult crossroads.
One path involves taking on significant financial risks—student loan debt and time out of the workforce—in order to pursue a conventional college experience despite those challenges. The other path often means choosing low-wage work with limited prospects for financial security in order to make ends meet.
The dilemma these students face disrupts the common narrative—work hard, go to college, start your career. As a result, many high school graduates are left without a reasonable option for taking the next step toward a prosperous future.
“There really isn’t a middle-ground at scale that’s offered to students to get a good first job that offers upward mobility, while continuing one’s education,” says John White (New Jersey ‘99). John is the co-founder of Propel America, an organization that is piloting a new program for Louisiana and New Jersey students to prepare for and find gainful employment within one year of high school graduation. John is also in his eighth year serving as Louisiana state superintendent of education, leading initiatives such as Louisiana Believes, to help ensure that every child is prepared for college or career opportunities.
Propel America is just one of the many organizations, several of them founded and led by Teach For America alumni, that are collaborating with schools, colleges, and local businesses to help students from underserved communities build bridges to good-paying jobs straight out of high school.
By integrating career learning into the high school experience, these programs give high school graduates the opportunity to gain professional job experience and earn a living wage before pursuing a four-year college degree.
What’s unique about these programs is that they also offer high-touch support throughout the transition from high school to career. For many students, their success hinges on this pivotal make-or-break moment—especially for those who may lack access to professional networks and career support at home.
“The big bet we’re making is that you can systemize the transition from high school to life after high school,” John says.
The Success Gap After High School
Despite doing everything right—working hard and earning good grades—the truth is that many students will graduate high school unprepared for their next steps toward college and career.
The reasons are complex, but a recent report from The New Teacher Project found that college-readiness depends on how much access students have to four big resources: Grade-appropriate assignments, strong instruction, deep engagement, and teachers who hold high expectations. After observing classrooms in a variety of schools, researchers found that students of color, those from low-income families, English language learners, and students with disabilities have even less access to these resources than their peers.
The study also found that when students get to college, 40 percent (including 66 percent of Black college students and 53 percent of Latinx college students) take at least one remedial course. In addition to spending additional time and tuition money relearning material they were told they had already mastered in high school, students who take just one remedial course are also 74 percent more likely to drop out. This leaves many students already in debt, and without a college degree.
Nationwide, 40% of college students take at least one remedial course.
First-time undergraduates who take one remedial course are 74% more likely to drop out.
Source: The Opportunity Myth by The New Teacher Project
At the same time, there isn't a clear path for students to acquire the skills needed for a good-paying job right out of high school, if they choose to defer going to college right away in order to gain job experience and save for tuition.
That’s where so-called “middle-skills jobs” enter the picture.
While a bachelor’s degree is required for most professional-level jobs, there is also an increasing need for workers in jobs that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. These middle-skills jobs include roles in healthcare, technology, and trades, offering good wages and benefits, with opportunities for advancement.
These jobs require specialized technical knowledge and application of real-world scenarios, some of which falls outside of the scope of material that K-12 students are required to master in class. And schools with limited resources may be less equipped to provide students with exposure to these career options, or offer one-on-one guidance counseling to help students navigate their steps toward these jobs.
But what if preparation for these middle-skills jobs and other career opportunities was baked into the high school experience early on and continued beyond graduation? That is the big question that many TFA alumni are answering through innovative career-readiness programs.
“Rather than thinking of higher education as a vehicle to getting a good first job, we’re thinking that a good first job is very much a vehicle to getting a higher education. We’re seeking a path where students work and learn concurrently.”
An Alternative Path to Upward Mobility
Having operated small pilots this summer, Propel America will launch with an inaugural cohort of 300 students this fall. The program contains elements modeled after other organizations, including OneGoal, co-founded by Jeff Nelson (Chicago-Northwest Indiana ‘04) and Matthew King, and Braven founded by Aimée Eubanks Davis (Greater New Orleans ’95). OneGoal assists low-income high school students to successfully transition to and complete college, while Braven helps first-generation college students to transition into upwardly-mobile careers.
Students who enroll in the Propel America program will take a career-prep class during their senior year of high school. After graduation, they can complete a credential program in their chosen career path at a partnering community college—all while receiving a stipend of federal dollars that covers their tuition and living expenses. They are then guaranteed an interview with an employer partner and receive ongoing support as they prepare for and navigate their first few months on the job.
“We’re not trying to create a new institution,” John says. “This is about connecting, in unorthodox ways, local high schools, community colleges, and employers to create a system that is seamless and intuitive.”
Propel America has partnered with local companies in industries that are needed in almost every community, such as skilled trades and healthcare. In addition to offering a good salary and benefits, these industries also offer transferrable skills and opportunities for long-term career advancement.
Earning a four-year degree is still an option for students who want to pursue college after—or while—gaining some work experience.
“Rather than thinking of higher education as a vehicle to getting a good first job, we’re thinking that a good first job is very much a vehicle to getting a higher education,” John says. “We’re seeking a path where students work and learn concurrently.”
Other Approaches to Career Readiness
Other alumni-founded organizations, such as Rooted School and Next Generation Men & Women, have taken a similar approach by building networks between high schools, community colleges, and local companies to create a seamless transition to a successful life after high school.
Rooted School’s founder, Jonathan Johnson (Greater New Orleans ‘10) takes a whole-school approach to career-readiness. The school serves New Orleans students in grades 9-12 and offers a curriculum that is developed in partnership with local tech companies across Louisiana.
Beginning in the ninth grade, students engage in rigorous project-based learning, applying algebra and language arts concepts toward scenarios they will encounter in the professional world. The school’s model is centered on ensuring students are not only prepared for college but are also equipped with the knowledge and skills to enter entry-level jobs in the local tech industry.
While Rooted School launched just two years ago, it’s showing signs of early success, with 84 percent of the founding freshmen class earning certifications in web design that meet industry standards for entry-level tech jobs in the New Orleans.
Next Generation Men & Women (Next Gen), has also seen success with its approach to exposing Atlanta high school students to a variety of fruitful career paths including college, vocational training, military service, and employment.
Founded by 2012 TFA Metro Atlanta alums Ian Cohen, Travis Salters, and Ben Sperling, the organization partners with high schools across Atlanta to help students develop personal goals and a rigorous plan for achieving those goals after graduation.
The program targets students in the “quiet middle,” those who are often overlooked when it comes to enrichment activities and extra support.
Cohorts of students meet twice a week for after-school leadership and career exploration classes led by a teacher and college mentor. Students also go on monthly “exposure” trips to visit a local college or employer partner where they can job-shadow employees in Atlanta-based tech, healthcare, and community service organizations. Students also gain access to a network of local business leaders and mentors through special events.
In 2018, the first cohort of 28 Next Gen students all graduated from high school and have successfully transitioned into a college or career opportunity.
These programs offer strong examples for how to seamlessly integrate college and career readiness into the high school experience—models which John and his co-founder, Propel CEO Paymon Rouhanifard (New York ‘03) have drawn from to launch Propel America. Over the next three years, the founders will pressure-test their model as they pilot the program in Louisiana and New Jersey.
For all of these programs, the hope is to create a model that puts students on a path to financial security from the moment they graduate high school. Students will not only have a plan for when they graduate, but they will also able to make a seamless transition to institutions that provide continuing education, job-certification, and employment. The end result: Students from all backgrounds will have a viable path to generating prosperity for themselves and will ultimately be able to invest back into their communities.
"There are many ways you can scale this model and we still have a lot to learn," John says. “We do know that we have to build a seamless connection between high school, community college, and employers. It has to be fast, and inexpensive, and it has to get people jobs.”