Comment: New tools can help high school grads get career skills

State lawmakers this year adopted programs and aid to further post-secondary skills needed in the workforce.

By Gene Sharratt and Sue Kane / For The Herald

Our economy depends on people who complete a credential after high school, such as a degree, apprenticeship or industry-aligned certificate or license. Post-high school education helps individuals gain the knowledge and skills they need to pursue careers over a lifetime, succeed economically — even in uncertain economic times — and create strong communities.

A significant number of Washington businesses are facing critical workforce shortages, particularly in health care, skilled-trades, technology, computer sciences, engineering and manufacturing.

These shortages can be addressed through post-secondary education and training at both community and technical colleges and four-year colleges and universities. In addition, labor-supported apprenticeships, businesses’ re-skilling and up-skilling programs, and online learning options provide training opportunities.

However, even before the pandemic, Washington post-high school education enrollment and credential attainment rates had flattened. During the pandemic, the rates declined dramatically. For the state high school class of 2019, just 43 percent of students are projected to earn a credential by age 26. Black, Latinx, and Native American students are projected to earn credentials at even lower rates. This leaves a 27-percentage point gap between the current rate at which our system is supporting students to complete post-high school education and training, and a 70 percent rate of credential completion that our state’s economy demands.

Our state legislature was instrumental during the 2023 session in passing new policies and investments that will better enable students to complete a post-high school credential and address the increased demands for an educated and skilled workforce. Examples include:

• Earning college credit in high school: All costs will be covered for high school students taking College in the High School courses, and students can now earn up to 10 college credits cost-free via Running Start courses during the summer.

• Expanded financial aid eligibility: More students are now eligible for the full Washington College Grant (up to 65 percent of median family income).

• Tuition timing: Students will know the cost of tuition at Washington’s public colleges and universities for the upcoming academic year, allowing them to make better-informed enrollment decisions.

• Student-level data sharing: Many Washington colleges and universities will be better able to support students’ transition from high school because of improved data sharing between The Office of State Superintendent of Public Education (OSPI) and post secondary institutions.

• Regional Challenge Grants: The new state budget includes $16 million to continue grants that support regional partnerships aimed at increasing post-secondary enrollment and credential attainment.

• High-demand degrees: More students will be able to enroll in computer science, teaching and health care programs because of new investments.

• Career-connected learning: New grants for Career Connect Washington will provide access to career-connected learning opportunities for more students across the state.

Washington has a track record of investing in opportunities for students to explore their education and career options through classes and other experiences. Expanding opportunity and breaking down barriers, especially financial ones, to Washington’s dual credit programs in public and private, not-for-profit colleges and universities, including Running Start, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, College in the High School, Cambridge International and Dual Credit for CTE. And career-connected learning will launch more students toward success in post-high school education and careers.

The pandemic highlighted the need for student supports such as advising and counseling, food and housing, and tutoring. Investments in supports like these will break down barriers for students to find and succeed on their best-fit education to a career pathway, particularly students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and students who are the first in their family to attend education after high school.

Going forward, the employment outlook for those with a credential after high school is strong. If we are to grow our economy; we must grow our skilled workforce. The Legislature took critical action during the 2023 session to support students’ needs and aspirations. Let’s continue to prioritize training and educational investments so that our current and future workforce can earn credentials for a successful tomorrow.

Dr. Gene Sharratt is chair of the Washington Higher Education Facilities Authority and vice-chair for Complete College America. Dr. Sue Kane is director of STEM Initiatives and Strategic Partnerships for Career Connected Learning, North Central Educational Service District.

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