While graduation rates have risen overall over the last decade, the rates for students of color are still far lower than that of White students. What’s more, students from families in lower socioeconomic status percentiles are five times more likely to quit high school; only 63 percent of English Language Learners graduate from high school; and students with disabilities only graduate at a rate of 61.9 percent. With many graduation plans altered and absentee rates surging in the pandemic, now more than ever, it’s crucial that we increase student engagement to ensure students from all backgrounds are getting the education needed to pursue careers.
One way is to draw a straighter line from classroom education to real-world experience and critical development of life skills, via work-based learning like internships, pre-apprenticeships and cooperative education. We need to give students opportunities to learn while they earn— not to find a reason to earn instead of learning. High school students who participate in work-based learning develop workplace skills and build the social capital that will be vital to future career success. Work-based learning experiences also help students hone their interests so that they can make more deliberate choices about post-secondary education and credentialing, and often can earn money while they remain actively engaged in their high school education.
Although work-based learning is common at the postsecondary level, it is less so in secondary education. Previous ASA research found that while high school students expressed strong interest in participating in some form of work-based learning, many did not know what types of opportunities were available, and employers reported multiple barriers to creating or expanding these types of programs for youth under age 18. A recent state-by-state audit of state policies around high school work-based learning showed the dramatic impact state procedures can have on making sure these opportunities are available to every student. However, the report also revealed that individual states are in very different stages of implementing youth work-based learning policies and programs, resulting in wide disparity across the nation.
To keep students engaged and in school, more states must ensure broad eligibility for high-quality WBL experiences and ensure there is enough available opportunity for all students to participate. For example, Ohio specifically changed its minor labor laws to explicitly exempt students participating in CTE, STEM, dual credit, or an apprenticeship program, making work-based learning for younger students more possible.
Another way that states are easing eligibility restrictions for work-based learning is by opening career and technical education (CTE) programming, where many experiences are exclusively embedded, to more students. Delaware requires all students to take at least three CTE courses in a pathway to graduate, while in New Mexico, all students beginning in the eighth grade must craft a “next step plan” that can include a college or university, the military, an internship or apprenticeship. Because of the breadth of options students have through their next step plan, all students are eligible to participate.
While eligibility may be close to universal in some states, access to available programming is not and the demand far outpaces the supply of opportunities.
States also must support equitable access to work-based learning opportunities for historically underserved, high-need students. Few states have developed explicit policies or programs to do so, but some stand out for best practices.
Georgia’s Great Promise Partnership is a public-private partnership that supports at-risk students to stay in and complete high school while simultaneously developing practical job skills and experiences through work-based learning. In Illinois, state law requires the Department of Children and Family Services to provide eligible youth an apprenticeship stipend to cover the costs associated with entering an apprenticeship, including costs such as tuition for classes, work clothes, or occupation-specific tools. Also in Illinois, the Youth Apprenticeship program provides wraparound supports to students (e.g., case management and counseling) and holistic upskilling (e.g., technical skills and soft skills), and the Chicago Jobs Council and Young Invincibles produced a report on integrating diversity across the state apprenticeship system.
Other states provide paid internship opportunities, which can help ensure that students who may otherwise need an after-school job are able to participate in work-based learning, or help with transportation. For example, the D.C. Department of Transportation’s Kids Ride Free program allows students to ride for free on the city’s bus and metro systems, ensuring they have free transportation to and from school and school-based opportunities, including work-based learning experiences.
Students who see the relevance and importance of education and its link to future success in the workplace are less likely to miss school or drop out. To increase student engagement and help close equity gaps in high school graduation rates, state policymakers must remove barriers and expand access to hands-on work-based learning that gives high school students career experience, workplace skills and an understanding of the education necessary to follow their own path to lifelong success.