What Students Want: Work-based Learning Programs


What Students Want: Work-based Learning Programs

March 24, 2021

Students have made it clear that they want education that is directly relevant to their life and future plans. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges to keep students engaged with learning, but a key to driving student engagement may be in expansion of work-based learning for high school students. Such opportunities are critical for both individual student success and for our immediate and long-term workforce recovery.

When asked about our education system and what prepares them for success, 73% of young Americans said on-the-job experience was important, according to a 2019 Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll.  However, a 2020 ASA survey found that only 34% of students were aware of work-based learning experiences for high school students. 

High school work-based learning opportunities can provide the type of on-the-job experience students need to grow their knowledge and skills, as well as help them make informed decisions about their post-secondary education and career pathway. By participating in these programs, students build a sense of occupational identity and discover their passions and motivations.

But what exactly does high school work-based learning mean and look like? And how do these programs support larger goals around education and workforce?

Work-based learning occurs when high school students participate in real-life work environments to gain career experience and apply their classroom knowledge and skills. Programs like high school internships, pre-apprenticeships and cooperative education experiences are all examples of work-based learning. These experiences are often either paid work opportunities and/or for high school credit. 

The benefits of experiential learning programs are well-documented, but most focus on providing experiences to older students prior to completing post-secondary education.  ASA believes these programs should be a key component of a robust secondary education experience and are critical to informing students’ plans after graduation. 

Students who participate in work-based learning are more engaged in their education, develop skills in communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and professionalism as well as technical skills that are crucial to career success. Work-based learning programs are great equalizers for traditionally underserved students, providing opportunity for students of color or students from lower-income households to build important social capital needed to move up the career ladder. They also expose students to a wide variety of education and career pathways, so students can make informed decisions about their futures prior to picking and paying for a post-secondary education. Work-based learning opportunities hold clear value as a pathway to a career and offer something classroom learning does not—the opportunity for real, competency-based and hands-on learning that is invaluable in preparing students for the realities of the working world.

What’s more, employers who provide work-based learning opportunities are able to find and develop talent early, diversify their candidate pool, build a pipeline of future workers, tap into new business perspectives and skills from a youth workforce, and build a strong reputation within their communities. 

Across the country, more educators, employers and policy leaders have seen the benefits of high school work-based learning programs and the positive impact these opportunities have for students of all backgrounds. But many states have yet to develop the necessary state-wide infrastructures needed to support or expand these important career readiness opportunities. Students are not only in need of these work-based learning programs, but a support system to share and emphasize the benefits of these experiences. What’s more, a 2020 ASA survey highlighted that there are some real barriers to increased employer participation in high school work-based learning that state policy should work to alleviate. 

ASA recently teamed up with Bellwether Education Partners to delve deeper into state-level work-based learning policies and understand how states can expand or adapt policy to support expansion of high school work-based learning. In our recent report, “Working to Learn and Learning to Work,” we highlight several promising models as well as examine the 15 critical criteria for successful implementation and sustainability of high school work-based learning programs.

You can download the full report here.

While we are encouraged at the number of states with high school work-based learning policies in place or being discussed, there is still much work to be done to improve these policies and programs and to ensure students of all backgrounds are aware of and can access these high-quality educational opportunities. 

In our research with Bellwether, we surfaced six key themes across state work-based learning policies that pose challenges for high school students, families, and all education stakeholders:

  1. States’ policies around work-based learning are either centralized or decentralized in implementation structure depending on the amount of local control over the education systems. As a result, some states have clearly delineated policies and guidelines while others leave it up to individual school districts. 
  2. Policies have broad eligibility requirements, but few ensure equitable access. As a result, while most students may be eligible to participate in a work-based learning opportunity, there is not enough capacity to accommodate every learner. 
  3. Few states have explicit policies or programs to support high-need students.
  4. Federal workforce funding is most frequently used to support high school programs, while a small number of states have dedicated funding, incentives, or other infrastructure support to promote work-based learning.
  5. Communicating available opportunities to students needs to be improved in most states.
  6. Most states need to set quality and accountability standards and develop data systems to support intervention and improvement.

Over the next few months, ASA will be sharing more information on the best practices we’ve uncovered in how states design work-based learning policies and programs that ensure access and equity for high school students. We will look at how to tap education and workforce funding sources to sustain these programs and at the importance of ensuring quality and accountability, and uplift promising state models and how these states have overcome challenges to building strong high school work-based learning programs. 

Join us here on our blog and social media each week for Work-based Learning Wednesday, where we will highlight these solutions and how states can improve their offerings for high school students. 

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