How to prepare students for college and careers at the same time

Traditionally, students have been forced into a dilemma: education programs to prepare them for a job or those designed to prepare them for college.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Tennessee has rolled out a series of programs designed to prepare students for both technical jobs and college at the same time.

Tennessee school districts offer high school courses that fall within 16 "career clusters" determined by employer demand. Individual districts can also create their own career courses, so long as they have data to demonstrate to the state that the courses meet labor market demand and will set students up for success in higher education.

Because these courses are modeled after technical programs at Tennessee's community colleges, they also offer students dual credit that's applicable toward an associate degree. Participants also walk away with certificates that make them competitive candidates for well-paying technical jobs.

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At Warren County High School, for instance, a course in mechatronics gives students coveted skills in engineering and electronics, which they can then use to land entry-level jobs such as automation, programming, and manufacturing.  

Writing for Education Week, Catherine Gewertz reports that high school graduates with mechatronics certificates can earn more than $45,000 per year in the region, which is significantly higher than lower-paying jobs like fixing lawnmower engines—jobs that many Tennessee school leaders noticed their grads were doing a lot of beforehand.

And because education leaders in Tennessee recognize that market demands are always shifting, so too are the technical education programs their high schools offer.

Throughout the year, Tennessee consultant teams meet with district, industry, and higher education experts to "weed out" and replace courses that are no longer benefitting students. Tennessee education commissioner Candice McQueen says the state will soon roll out a new system of accountability to determine if schools are graduating students that are "work-ready."

Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, argues that what makes preparation systems like Tennessee's successful is an equal focus on two goals:

  • Earning a bachelor's degree; and
  • Landing a job that pays well, with the help of a technical certification.

Career and technical education programs are on the rise beyond Tennessee, too—in fact, they represent a national trend toward better preparing students to meet workforce demands.

But individuals championing these programs are adamant that they not be seen as an alternative to higher education, but rather a pathway.

"The message now is that career-tech-ed studies open the door to good jobs, while simultaneously serving as the first step toward a technical college, community college, or baccalaureate institution," Gewertz writes (Gewertz, Education Week, 5/9).

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