15 min read

A Blurred Vision For Good

Let’s be real: Over the past few decades, there have been many attempts to improve the U.S. education system and make it more equitable for all learners. While those efforts may have been sincere, they have not succeeded. Our nation’s education and workforce development systems remain broken and inequitable.

To set up today’s younger generations for equitable economic advancement in the decades ahead, we need bold, radical solutions to tear down structural barriers and transform our postsecondary education, training, and career development systems. One key area to fix is the intractable disconnect between high school, higher education, and the workforce in this country.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) has a solution to that problem—we call it The Big Blur—and it’s the focus of our latest episode of the Horizons podcast. The idea is to rethink and restructure grades 11-14, which traditionally have been the last two years of high school and the first two years of college, into something new.

It’s an innovative vision that reimagines education and training through an entirely new type of institution—neither high school nor college. It’s designed specifically to better meet the needs of young people after 10th grade by obliterating the barriers to higher education and stable, family-supporting careers. It includes two years of free college education linked tightly to career preparation through work-based learning and aligned to labor market demands.

Again, let’s be real: do we need a wholesale rethinking and restructuring of the transition from high school to college to careers? Yes. Here are just some of the reasons why:

  • Nearly every young person needs a postsecondary credential and work experience to start a career. Top labor market researchers predict that 70 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education and training by 2027. Surveys of young people show they think K-12 education needs to provide more opportunities to build work-related skills.
  • Despite massive public and private efforts to increase college completion, the rate of growth in attainment is slow and overall attainment remains unacceptably low. Children born into our country’s lowest two wealth groups—the bottom 40 percent of the U.S. population—graduate from college at a rate of only 11.8 percent.
  • Promising programs share key elements, but their overall impact is limited. Innovative initiatives exist but haven’t scaled nationally, often constrained by funding, staffing, governance, and incentives, among other factors.

JFF talked to many experts in the field to develop the vision for The Big Blur. In the sixth episode of the Horizons podcast, host Tameshia Bridges Mansfield looks back at the in-depth discussion about The Big Blur from last year’s Horizons summit, including insights from:

  • JFF Vice President Joel Vargas, a co-author of The Big Blur, explains why this disruptive solution is needed.
  • Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education, shares her reasoning supporting a systemic overhaul.
  • Russell Lowery-Hart, President of Amarillo College in the Texas Panhandle, talks about a strategic approach to make The Big Blur a reality.
  • Michael Matsuda, Superintendent of Anaheim Union High School District in Orange County, California, emphasizes the critical need for partnerships and collaboration for such a concept to scale nationally.

In his recent State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden reiterated his commitment to expanding skills-based hiring and creating pathways to the middle class for all Americans. Employers recognize the return on investment of expanding the pathways of today and building those of tomorrow to strengthen their talent pipelines. The Big Blur would revamp our systems and prepare learners with the skills and experiences required for financially healthy careers and a strong economy in the decades ahead.



Tameshia: [00:00:00] Hi, I'm Tameshia Bridges Mansfield, vice president for workforce innovation at Jobs for the Future, also known as JFF. And this is Horizons. In this special podcast series, we'll share the best and brightest highlights from JFF's annual Horizons summit, a national gathering of influencers dedicated to reimagining the future of learning and work and leaving the past where it belongs–behind us. We'll hear from a diverse range of experts, many with unconventional points of view, representing private industry, government, philanthropy, nonprofit, and educational institutions focused on aligning people, places, and systems to drive economic advancement for all. 

Carving a path towards the career of your dreams has become much more complicated over the years, especially for the young learners of today who will become the workers of tomorrow. The societal pressure to go from high school to college, along with low college completion rates, have left too many young people saddled with debt, many with degrees that have not prepared them for a changing workforce. The situation is more pronounced among those populations most disadvantaged by our current education, training, and workforce development systems, namely Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth. As an example, as referenced in JFF's recent publication about Black economic equity, 90 percent of Black students are more likely to require student loans to finance their education and hold more debt, compared to 66 percent of their white peers. Furthermore, the college completion rate for Black students is nearly 25 percentage points lower than for white students. 

Today's policymakers, employers, and educational institutions are making significant strides towards creating more dynamic, accelerated, and nontraditional pathways for America's youth. In his recent State of the Union address, President Joe Biden reiterated his commitment to expanding skills-based hiring and creating pathways to the middle class for all Americans. Employers recognize the return on investment of expanding the pathways of today and building those of tomorrow to strengthen their talent pipelines. However well-intentioned, changes around the edges of our systems haven't worked, are inequitable, or aren't scalable. Bold, radical solutions are in order to transform our education, training, and workforce development systems to set up today's younger generations for equitable economic advancement in the decades ahead. 

In this episode, we'll explore JFF's bold concept called “The Big Blur,” a model which refers to blurring the lines between, or blending, various educational pathways across high school, postsecondary and career development opportunities to make it easier for all learners, regardless of zip code or background, to obtain the skills they need to succeed in the workforce. We'll hear clips from a Horizons 2021 segment titled “The Big Blur: Reimagining the Transitions between Grade 11, Postsecondary, and Career. First, JFF's Vice President of Programs Joel Vargas explains why there's a greater need for the Big Blur now more than ever. 

Joel: [00:04:19] The high school diploma alone is no longer a ticket to jobs with livable wages, benefits, or growth prospects. Postsecondary credentials are becoming more and more necessary for economic advancement. But college completion rates are low, especially for students experiencing poverty and Black, Native American, and Latinx students. College is also increasingly expensive with a too-often uncertain return on investment. Admissions processes are complex and difficult to navigate. Of the students who are accepted to college and are by many measures prepared, too many don't enroll in college or complete a degree leading to good jobs, all while often taking on huge amounts of student loan debt. So although there have been important efforts helping to support students from high school into and through college and careers, for example, we love these FAFSA completion campaigns, college and career ready standards and accountability, and enhanced guidance counseling. They're navigating transitions between systems that no longer makes sense for today's economic needs. It shouldn't be surprising because of that that increases in credential attainment remain low, slow, and unequal. Strategies that accelerate students’ transitions, including many that JFF that has promoted over the years, such as early college high schools, dual enrollment, grade 13 programs, they're really promising but they haven't scaled up because they're working within and around existing system boundaries. The growing movement for College Promise programs lifts the financial barrier that's really needed, but doesn't always provide students the scaffolding they need to fully leverage the resource. So, however important and effective, these are all temporary or partial Band-Aids, not comprehensive permanent solutions. And they indicate the need for the nation to undertake a radical rethinking and restructuring of the transition from high school to college and career. 

Tameshia: [00:06:21] After outlining some of the current obstacles young people are encountering today when navigating the career landscape, Joel explained how we can chart a new course for the future through the lens of the big blur. 

Joel: [00:06:35] So, here's our proposal: It would be to create new structures that would better serve 16- to 20-year-old young adults. These could take a few different forms, for example, two years of college included in high school or two years of high school included in college. That said, these structures would be neither high schools nor community colleges, but new configurations for all students. It would be free for students, and they would include guided pathways and labor market-aligned sequences of work-based learning experiences, codesigned with regional employers, and they'd culminate in credentials that give young people direct access to the labor market and further postsecondary education. So under these structures, students would no longer need to navigate the dozens of disparate components that constitute applying to, getting into, and showing up for college, choosing the right high school courses, doing a college search, accessing financial aid, taking standardized tests, to say nothing of the skills, knowledge, supports, and self-confidence required to successfully finish the first semester and persist to their first credential. So this would also require reimagining policies and systems, funding streams, curricula, pedagogy, employer engagement, and teacher preparation pipelines, to fundamentally reinvent the upper years of high school and the first two years of college so that they're fully integrated and connected to careers within communities. 

So here's what the systemic features would resemble to us. First of all, you need an incentive structure to promote new ways of organizing learning and support systems across grades 11 through 14. Systems would need to be held accountable for defined outcomes in this period, and current funding streams could be braided, used flexibly, and dedicated ones created as needed for systems serving students in these grades. It would also require alignment of systems enabling 11th-grade students to enter new institutional structures, incorporating high school and college requirements, designed for career preparation, and incorporating work experience. These structures would enable students to take incremental steps on a career pathway and result in credentials with labor market value by the end of 14th grade and the ability to progress in further education. So we'd also need governance by a team or by an empowered senior leader with decision-making authority that oversees, ensures funding for, and supports an integrated and unified grades 11 through 14 that includes pathways aligned to the state's economic development strategy. And finally, but probably not finally, we're probably not thinking of things, and you can tell us if we are, but we need staffing structures designed to equip specially trained educators and leaders to teach, curate, and organize learning and work experiences and support systems for students in grades 11 through 14. 

But this vision that we just laid out really represents huge shifts in our systems, and moving in this direction may initially require more incremental but still bold steps and some of which we see states actually beginning to take. These include accountability systems and high school graduation requirements that require early college credit earning and work-based learning scholarships for high school students to underwrite these experiences and performance-based incentives for colleges that recognize successful work with high school students. So accelerating the uptake and scale of these kinds of strategies is critical, in our view, to move the needle more dramatically and equitably on college completion and economic advancement for all. 

Tameshia: [00:10:18] Shifting our traditional systems in this way will not only benefit youth, it will benefit us all. By accelerating education and training opportunities for underserved communities, we'll also be reinvigorating the economy and advancing innovation across all industries. In the same Horizons 2021 segment, Dr. Kim Hunter Reed, Louisiana commissioner of higher education, also emphasized the need for a complete overhaul when it comes to the way we think about education, training, and career development. 

Kim: [00:10:59] To be transformational when it comes to talent development, we must think in new ways about system redesign at scale. The Big Blur challenges us to do just that, by blurring lines between K-12, higher education, and the world of work. It's a bold vision, collaborating in new ways to make a stronger education-to-employment pipeline everyone's goal and every student's reality. We will not get there by working in silos, by admiring the problem, nor by blaming students for lack of exposure or lack of academic preparation. Incremental change will not bring this big vision to reality. 

Now I recognize that system redesign is hard and uncertain, but we can't cling to the comfort of small pilots and expect to see large-scale change. It just won't happen if we don't go all in and prioritize a vision of opportunity for all. This knowledge economy puts a premium on skills and credentials. If that is the prerequisite for meaningful employment, they must make sure that everyone has that opportunity. Embracing that vision and the policies and practices needed to make it a reality? That is what we are now called to do. So let's do it. 

Tameshia: [00:12:14] In order to embrace this vision of the Big Blur, all sectors must come together in collaboration and commit to large-scale change. But embracing the new requires letting go of the old parts of the systems that have proven to be ineffectual. Making incremental improvements to existing systems simply won't cut it any longer. We need to shake up the foundation if we hope to make a real impact. In the next clip, Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College, discussed some of the strategies we can rely on to bring this vision to life. 

Russell: [00:12:56] The Big Blur is a big deal. It challenges the very nature of what our education systems are based on, and I think challenges us as leaders to rethink them. The old model that I think we are all protecting by not reimagining is where learning is tied to time and place like semesters in classrooms. Often the system that we work within now rewards compliance even more than it rewards learning and skill building. And in higher ed, we have whole degrees that are universally linked by a series of courses in things we called fields that are often just a series of classes that are driven by faculty interest more than any kind of intentional alignment with our industry partners. The old model has to be an old model, we have to get rid of it. We have to reimagine it. We have to rethink it. I think we're at a point, especially post-COVID, where the old model isn't just ineffective, it is actually going to start being harmful. We're going to have to move to a skill-based competency where classrooms are places of application, of action, demonstration, not just regurgitation. We're going to have to give way to the timelines that we have built our formula around in terms of semesters and move to demonstrations of skills and acquisition and application of those skills. And we're going to have to build a model that requires true partnership with our communities and our workforce. 

So when you think about this new model that’s skill-based, that’s competency-based, that isn't specific to a classroom, but to our partners in industry, that isn't wrapped around semesters but have multiple entry and exit points based on someone's ability to demonstrate the skill, where technology is infused into all learning, not as a separate standalone, it's going to require us to lead in more profound ways than we've ever imagined. It's going to require us to partner with our communities in a more profound way, where the classroom is actually going to migrate to a company in the community, where the company is going to have to be a partner with you in assessing the skills that we're trying to build, not just someone who hires students on the back end, but is an active partner in not just teaching but assessing and employing students while they're in this learning experience that we have to redesign. 

We can't afford to maintain the status quo. I would challenge you that we can't even afford to play in the margins of reimagining the status quo. The transformation that's needed from us in higher education, in particular, will require us to let go of the very bureaucracies that we've all built our careers on, that we’ve built our institutions around. But if we're going to be the entity, especially community colleges, that they're a hub of innovation, and the hub of a nimble response to what's happening in our society, we are going to have to reimagine when and how instruction is delivered, who's delivering it, how we partner with workforce, letting go of the concepts of time and transcripts and the old bureaucracy.

Tameshia: [00:16:45] To challenge the status quo, strong partnerships will be crucial. Employers, education leaders, and governments will need to join forces and keep communication lines open to make the Big Blur a reality. Michael Matsuda, the superintendent of Anaheim Union High School District, shared some examples of the partnerships that are helping to drive the conversation forward in his community. His example helps to showcase what could be possible if we learn to collectively build a new model. 

Michael: [00:17:22] One of the challenges about this blur of the system is trying to get all of the folks together, whether it's the K-12, community college, higher ed, and business and nonprofits, we've been able to do that through what we call the Anaheim Collaborative. We meet on a monthly basis, and it's not easy because we're moving each other's [inaudible]. And as everybody here knows, there's a lot of transformative, tectonic changes going on. When you think about what Google and some of the large businesses are doing, they're creating their own sort of educational bitcoin, and in terms of these pathways that students and young adults and older adults can take in lieu of a traditional four-year bachelor's degree or a two-year community college degree, that you can take these pathways offered through Google and others and get a job in six months at a fraction of the cost. So we are very interested in partnering with organizations like Google as well and embedding those courses. The thing is, how do we all make sense of it? How do we develop cohesion? And we do that by having these types of convenings, where we can come together and really share ideas and push each other's thinking and become critical friends as we move forward together. 

Tameshia: [00:18:55] For those who pursue college or would like to, learning to navigate the education system and earn the credits needed to graduate can be a minefield of challenges. Add to that economic disadvantages, personal responsibilities like taking care of children, and the need to work multiple jobs to stay afloat, and it becomes next to impossible. Lande Ajose, former senior policy adviser for higher education to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, is now vice president and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. She's also the Walter and Esther Hewlett Chair in Understanding California's Future. In her remarks, she noted that these issues need to be addressed first, if we ever hope to solve the problem of inequality nationally. 

Lande: [00:19:51] For students without college knowledge, figuring out how to get into and graduate from college can be an insurmountable challenge. These same students likely don't have the money to gain career-relevant skills through unpaid internships, nor do they have the access or social capital to be able to get good paying jobs through connections and networks. From high school to college to career, the deck is stacked against them. So I actually think it's imperative that we create streamlined pathways that help high school students gain early college credit and the skills that they need to find a good paying job and to succeed in the workplace. This can't just be about helping students navigate a complex system. That's our default. What we actually do need to do is make the system one that isn't hard to navigate in the first place. 

The question is really about the how. In government, we don't have the luxury of building programs from the ground up. We have to mold and shape our existing programs, our existing systems, as well as the stakeholders that live and work within them to be better. But when it comes to remaking transitions, I actually think we can get there. In California at the very height of the pandemic, we created a recovery with equity task force to chart a post-pandemic roadmap for higher education. Many of the recommendations centered on this exact issue–how do we expand early college credit and ensure that students are getting a more engaging, career-relevant education? 

In addition, last year we established a Fresno integrated K-16 collaborative with $10 million in state funding. The collaborative brings together K-12, community colleges, our state university system, and our University of California system to create streamlined occupational pathways in four key sectors. So far, the collaborative has approved 17 partnerships, impacting more than 1,400 students and teachers, and they're just getting started. We're also investing in guided pathways at the community colleges, apprenticeships including youth apprenticeships, work-based learning at the postsecondary level. All of this is to say that creating a more aligned and equitable system that's responsive to the needs of workers and the economy is at the top of our minds and at the top of our to-do list. 

So, my question for you is "How?" How should we remake our systems? Is the California approach doable, replicable, scalable? Are there other approaches out there that need to be lifted up? What kinds of pilot programs do we need to test the thinking around how we drive integration at scale and how do we fund those pilots? As you consider these questions, I want to leave you with this: We all need to keep banging the drum when it comes to K-16 alignment. We know why early college credit is so important. We know why work-based learning is so important. And we know why streamlined systems are so important. But far too many, including those who are in decision-making roles, do not. The more we spread the word, the more we raise our voices, the more pressure there will be on all of us, including those of us in government and those of us in higher education leadership, to take action and to take action on behalf of those who are most often left out. 

Tameshia: [00:23:34] The Big Blur will require all of us to think equitably and expansively about what we're trying to achieve when it comes to effective learning. There are multiple pathways to success, and success for one person is not the same as success for another. Some proven definitions of success involve a college degree, while others involve a postsecondary or industry-recognized credential or the acquisition and demonstration of transferable skills. Evaluating success depends on if you're an individual learner or an employer hiring and developing talent. Closing out the Horizons Big Blur session, JFF Associate Vice President Kyle Hartung reminds us that learning isn't just training for a job, it's preparing for a career and the rest of your life. 

Kyle: [00:24:32] I mean, I think that there's a lot of lessons to learn from the historical work in the college and career pathways space. And I think that the strongest of those programs and systems and approaches have always embedded cross-cutting skills as a core component of these. So it's not, remembering that this is not about job training, it's about career preparation and to effectively do that, especially as we think about the future of work. Pre-pandemic, we used to speak about this a lot and the impact of automation on jobs, and I think that there are a lot of these skills. And if you approach it with a career orientation, it's not just about preparing for a singular occupation in one industry, but opportunities that allow you to continue to grow and engage in lifewide learning and not just lifelong learning. 

Tameshia: [00:25:20] The Big Blur is more than just a great idea. It's an innovative vision that reimagines education and training through an entirely new type of institution. It's neither high school nor college; it's a model that obliterates the barriers to higher education and stable family-supporting careers. After reviewing these empowering Horizons 2021 segments, I have two key takeaways to share: First, as usual, collaboration is key. A common theme we've heard across all Horizons segments is that strong partnerships are essential in the revamping of America's training and education systems. We can accomplish much more together than we can apart. So it's time to bring together the education system, governments, and the workforce to move towards economic equity. Second, it may seem obvious, but to bring in the new, we need to do away with the old. Traditional educational and career pathways are overly complex, exclusionary, expensive, and generally not reflective of today's modern workforce. In order to create more equitable, efficient, and effective pathways for today's youth and our future employment requirements, we need to move away from dated, ineffective models and drive innovation forward to accommodate both the future of learning and work. Thanks for listening to the Horizons podcast brought to you by JFF. Together, we're building a future that works and inspiring others to fight for equality, diversity, and inclusivity everywhere. Make sure to subscribe, rate, and review the podcast and tune in to our next monthly episode. To learn more about Horizons or watch the full sessions featured in today's episode, visit us online at JFF.org/Horizons. I'm Tameshia Bridges Mansfield from Jobs for the Future. See you next time! 

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