Comment: Making sure youths, employers both get what’s needed

Meeting their shared goals for credentials after high school needs greater effort after the pandemic.

By Barbara Hulit and Steve Smith / For The Herald

Washington students and employers share something in common: Both want the young people of our state to be ready for success in the economy.

Washington employers expect to add 373,000 net new jobs in the coming five years. Most of these jobs – an estimated 70 percent – will require or be filled by workers with a post-high school credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate. In the Snohomish County region, nearly 80 percent of high-demand, family-sustaining wage job openings by 2030 will require a postsecondary credential.

Students want to earn these credentials. In a survey, nearly all high school students in the south King County region said they aspire to attend education beyond high school to attain meaningful, family-wage careers.

Students’ aspirations and employers’ needs are clearly aligned. But there’s a catch: Only 43 percent of Washington’s high school graduating class of 2019 is expected to earn a credential after high school. That leaves a 27-point gap between economic demand for credentials and the rate of actual attainment. For Black, Indigenous and students of color, the system’s performance is even lower.

Prior to the pandemic, an estimated 44 percent of white students and 62 percent of Asian students were projected to attain a post-high school credential by age 26. Estimated credential attainment was lower for Black (31 percent), Hispanic or Latinx (30 percent), and Native American (18 percent) students. No racial or ethnic subgroup was meeting the 70 percent credential attainment goal, and even those numbers may erode in future years given significant postsecondary enrollment declines during the pandemic. We have work to do.

Fortunately, the state Legislature made strides during the 2022 session. Several new policies and investments will support students’ aspirations and needs as they work to complete a credential after high school. More students are now eligible for the full Washington College Grant, and students who receive the maximum grant because of their income level are also eligible for $500 grants to help cover non-tuition expenses.

The state is investing in awareness campaigns and direct outreach to students to encourage them to complete their financial aid application. Such efforts are sorely needed. Our state has one of the most generous financial aid programs in the nation, but to date, only 40 percent of the high school class of 2022 has completed a financial aid application.

Lawmakers provided new funding to support local partnerships between schools, community organizations and employers in working together to provide individualized outreach and support to students seeking to enroll in and complete education after high school. Initiatives in Seattle, Tacoma and Chehalis offer great examples of how such partnerships can succeed in both rural and urban settings to support a smooth transition between high school and college that doesn’t leave students on their own to navigate — and all too often fall out of — complicated systems.

The Legislature also invested in expanded career-connected learning, dual-credit opportunities and apprenticeships. All of these investments act together to boost the likelihood that more students in Snohomish County and the state will graduate high school, enroll and persist into a second year of post-high school education, and complete a credential.

The actions taken this year will support more students locally and across the state. But the work is not done. Barriers increased during the pandemic and enrollment in post-high school education declined. Enrollment drops at Washington’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities over the last two years have been particularly concerning among first-year students and students from low-income backgrounds.

Students have big dreams for their futures, and they are working hard to achieve their goals. Steps the Legislature took this session will help. And there is much more to do. All of us must work together to continue breaking down barriers and building up supports so more students — particularly those furthest from opportunity — attain the credentials they need.

Barbara Hulit is the chair of the Partnership for Learning board. Steve Smith is the executive director of the Black Education Strategy Roundtable.

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