Spotlight Exclusives

September 14, 2009: Investing in Human Capital, By Marlene B. Seltzer, president and CEO of Jobs for the Future

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In his February address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama called on all Americans to pursue some form of education beyond high school, and he challenged the nation to once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. “Those who out-teach us today,” he said, “will out-compete us tomorrow.” The President۪s words highlight the dual notion that not only is attaining some form of post-secondary education absolutely necessary to enable Americans to take advantage of all of the benefits of life in this nation, it is imperative to our collective ability to compete in a changing global economy.

The President۪s words also betray the fact that we as a nation have yet to meet all the conditions for prosperity in the years ahead. Indeed, nearly 1.2 million young Americans each year almost one in three students do not graduate from high school on time, and of those who do graduate, only 45 percent are actually prepared to succeed in college.

The reality is even more dire among low-income youth. Nearly 40 percent of students in the lowest socioeconomic quintile drop out of high school before earning a diploma. And of those who do graduate, only 23 percent are prepared for college. From the point of view of our local economies, and amid record-breaking unemployment nationwide, severe skill shortages stymie entire industries and threaten regional competitiveness.

As our country fights its way out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we must restore both our country۪s physical infrastructure and its human infrastructure. Indeed, the federal government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to stimulate significant progress in addressing economic hardship in America by putting every individual on the path to college and a family-sustaining career. Although the challenge is great, progress is possible.

Founded in 1983, the non-profit Jobs for the Future (JFF) partners with hundreds of local, state, and national organizations to identify, develop, and promote projects and policies that improve education and enhance economic opportunity for those who need it most.

Our research and our on-the-ground work have pointed us to three critical strategies that should guide federal education and skill-development efforts. To ensure the strong and sustained recovery that is crucial to individual Americans and the United States as a whole, the nation must: create incentives for increasing the supply of high-quality solutions, couple new investments in innovation and improvement with a focuson results, and ensure that education and workforce investments lead to postsecondary credentials and higher skills.

The Early College High School Initiative, managed by JFF, is a powerful example of an effective response to a particularly grim statistic: only 21 percent of eighth-grade students eligible for free and reduced lunch complete a college credential within eight years of graduating from high school, compared with 49 percent of their middle-income peers. Launched in 2002 with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other funders, the initiative has created more than 200 small schools that blend high school and college courses to prepare underprepared students for higher education.

Eighty-three percent of graduates from early college high schools have earned at least some college credits tuition free and gained concrete knowledge about what it takes to succeed in postsecondary education. Last year, 89 percent of the students from these schools went on to postsecondary education in the fall. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about two-thirds of all high school graduates enroll in college immediately after high school. This contrast in college-going rates is even more striking given that early college high schools are committed to serving students underrepresented in higher education, including young people of color and those from low-income families.

Even as the nation enhances educational opportunities for struggling young people, we also must invest in adults and their economic prospects. Breaking Through, a collaboration of JFF and the National Council for Workforce Education, has supported the efforts of 32 innovative community colleges to help low-skilled adults, a highly vulnerable population, to gain the skills and the credentials that are the gateway to family-supporting careers.

Of the adult learners who enrolled in Breaking Through programs, many entered below college level in such essential skills as reading, writing, and mathematics; most of them scored low on standard literacy tests. Some had a high school diploma but many did not. Compared to prior studies that reported retention rates of only 10 to 30 percent among low-skilled adults, over half of Breaking Through students passed one or more developmental courses and went on to college-level instruction.

These initiatives confront the challenge of scale: how can we build on successes and reach more individuals in need? One answer comes from the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, which JFF and the Council on Foundations have helped a coalition of national funders to design and launch over the past two years. Based on proven models, the National Fund is creating efficient, community-wide workforce pipelines that assemble a variety of resources to help lower-wage workers earn a better living and to help their employers thrive.

These strategies are already making a difference in 21 regions across the nation, including some of our hardest hit communities. In encouraging news from early evaluations in the first 10 communities to join the initiative, over 500 employers worked with community colleges and other partners to improve the skills and advance the careers of over 6,000 low-skilled workers. These employers hired 887 unemployed low-income people in skilled jobs between October 2007 and September 2008. Last year, nearly 700 of the working adults in National Fund projects completed a postsecondary degree or credential. Workers whose employers support their education and training are more likely to improve their skills; they also are more likely to keep their jobs and move their families out of poverty.

As President Obama has said, “Now is the time to act boldly and wiselyto not only revive this economy but to build a foundation for lasting prosperity.” We must invest in expanding the supply of these models that directly reduce poverty, move to replicate and adapt what works on a scale that responds to the national need, and use public policy to promote that expansion. We must think about education and skill investments, in both our young people and adults, as a single pipeline, leading to individuals who can support their families and help communities thrive. Our nation۪s livelihood depends on it.

Marlene B. Seltzer is president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, a leading research and policy development organization focused on education and workforce strategies that help more Americans obtain the skills they need to succeed in today۪s economy.

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