May 29, 2024

Although Washington state has one of the most dynamic job markets in the country, nearly all available career pathway jobs remain out of reach for many of our high school graduates. Opportunities in our state for landing a family-wage career are plentiful. They go beyond information technologies including automobile services, manufacturing, health care, agriculture and more. Unfortunately, there are barriers for most graduates who choose not to go to college. 

Most of these pathway jobs require education or training beyond a high school degree. Our challenge is this: We’ve been stuck at the same percentage of high school graduates who do not continue past high school — a disturbing 40% — for two decades. The situation is not better for older Washington residents in their twenties, thirties and beyond.

Ironically, continuing education is abundantly available. We have the necessary community-technical colleges, universities and four-year colleges to meet these post-high school job requirements. They range from a traditional four-year degree to certificate programs that can be completed in less than a year. The jobs are available. Many of the needed supportive resources are in place. Yet 40% are still not going beyond high school. To improve, local communities must come together to remove the obstacles that stand in the way. 

Students are influenced by their communities. Local organizations, including schools, employers and nonprofits already serving young people and their families are closer to students and better understand the obstacles that may stand in their way. We can and should do more to help these organizations. It will require taking risks on new ideas, forming new partnerships within our communities and a commitment by our community leaders. We need to be innovative, analyze results, learn continuously and quickly scale innovation that works. The payoff is real. Good jobs support futures and families. This isn’t a low probability situation. We can demonstrate that there are higher rates of enrollment in communities that promote the value, accessibility and affordability of continued education and training. 

Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed creating a Washington Career and College Pathways Innovation program to support community partnerships to tackle this challenge. The fund will support regional partnerships that bring key stakeholders to the table, including students, parents, employers and community nonprofits. Partnerships will work to eliminate educational opportunity gaps for low-income students, students of color, English language learners, students with disabilities, and foster and homeless youth.

Seattle Promise, the Chehalis Initiative and the emerging King County Promise are three examples of such partnerships showing the potential to help more students succeed in these pathways. These programs also show the need to continually learn and adapt to better serve students. Grounded in a strong promise of college affordability, these community initiatives have added investments in targeted outreach, math support and summer academies. The state should help expand their body of work and bring other communities into these efforts.

More specifically, Seattle Promise is a partnership of the city, public schools and Seattle community colleges that started with a few high schools and went citywide in 2018. The University of Washington has just joined the partnership to offer pathways to a 4-year degree. The Chehalis Student Achievement Initiative started almost 10 years ago with philanthropic support for a partnership between the Chehalis School District and Centralia College. Their work is driving improved student outcomes in high school and significantly increasing the number of students continuing their education after graduation. Finally, King County Promise is now launching its initiative, which is being led by the Puget Sound College and Career Network with more than 300 participants.

This is a life-changing opportunity for thousands of our young adults who choose to seek a good job after high school graduation. By inspiring and assisting more of our high school graduates to take advantage of continuing education, we will improve their prospects for a productive adulthood. The entire community will benefit. 

Every year we delay, thousands of our high school graduates will fail to qualify for the family-wage jobs so abundantly available in Washington. It is a loss we cannot afford.