College for all has been the goal of K–12 schools for at least twenty-five years. This has meant that America’s schools typically do not provide young people with work experience. This experience gap has young people leaving high school with little understanding of work and practical pathways to jobs and careers. They also find it difficult to transition from school to work and earn lower wages when they begin work.
Many Americans, including young people, no longer believe college is the default pathway to success. They want K–12 schools to provide practical learning. For many, this means apprenticeship programs, making them a new learning campus for young people.
Unlike the conventional college campus, students in apprenticeships have a full-time job; earn a living; learn from a mentor in the workplace and classroom; and receive a credential with little to no student debt. This learn-and-earn model is spawning new forms, like pre-apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, and apprenticeship degrees.
The demand side: What Americans want
Populace reports that Americans’ current priority for K–12 schools is ensuring students develop practical, tangible skills that prepare them for a career. Only one in four (26 percent) think schools do this. Americans believe that apprenticeships develop this practical sense, with strong support from the public, including young adults, especially Gen Z.
More than nine in ten (92 percent) Americans view apprenticeships favorably, while more than six in ten (62 percent) say they make people more employable than going to college. Seven in ten (71 percent) disagree that an apprenticeship limits future employment options, with more than nine in ten agreeing (94 percent) that apprenticeships help individuals obtain new careers. When asked to choose between a full-tuition college scholarship and a three-year apprenticeship leading to a good job, nearly six in ten (56 percent) parents opt for apprenticeships. And more than two-thirds of Gen Z high schoolers say post-high school learning should be on the job through internships or apprenticeships (65 percent).
The supply side: Apprenticeship programs today
In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Apprenticeship Act, which gave the federal government authority to register and oversee apprenticeship programs, with states having an option to do so. About half the states exercise that option, with 27,000 registered programs enrolling around 500,000 individuals.
The U.S. lags behind many nations in using apprenticeships for workforce preparation. Moreover, around 70 percent of U.S. registered programs are in construction trades, such as carpentry and plumbing. This is unlike other English-speaking nations like Australia and the United Kingdom where most government-supported apprenticeships are in fields like healthcare, logistics, technology, and the financial sector. The U.S. also has pre-apprenticeship programs that prepare individuals for registered apprenticeships and youth apprenticeships, typically part of a young person’s high school experience (some are registered). Apprenticeships differ from internships, which typically are short-term, entry-level, often unpaid jobs without a mentor and no industry credentials.
State and federal support are growing for apprenticeships. They have bipartisan backing is states as diverse politically as California, Colorado, Tennessee, and Texas. Federal spending for apprenticeships in the Labor Department’s Employment and Training Administration more than doubled over five years, from $90 million in 2016 to $185 million in 2021.
These programs succeed in preparing individuals for rewarding employment. One study of registered apprenticeships shows that workers earn $240,000 more over their lifetime—$300,000 when including benefits—by participating. Another study documents how states are creating new pre-apprenticeship programs as short as one to three weeks or as long as eight weeks that recruit a more diverse pool of underrepresented groups for apprenticeships.
The supply side: Creating more apprenticeships
The apprenticeship intermediary is a new third-party structure at the center of U.S. efforts to expand apprenticeship programs. Ryan Craig, managing director at Achieve Partners and author of Apprenticeship Nation, describes these organizations as “earn-and-learn” intermediaries that use a “hire-train-deploy” model to run and pay the up-front costs of apprenticeship. They can be public, non-profit, or for-profit organizations—for example, community colleges, chambers of commerce, and commercial staffing companies—which work locally, regionally, statewide, or nationally. Companies would “try-before-you-buy” an apprentice, paying a fee to the intermediary for its work. In short, an intermediary is a sum of three functions: “Earn-and-Learn” + “Hire-Train-Deploy” + Try-Before-You-Buy = Apprenticeship Intermediary.
The supply side: Apprenticeship degrees
Some countries integrate degrees into apprenticeship programs. For example, the United Kingdom has an earn-and-learn apprenticeship degree that takes between three and six years to complete and leads to a debt-free bachelor’s or master’s degree in fields like health and sciences, business and administration, and aerospace. Individuals apply to an employer, with the degree granted by a partner university. The government pays two thirds the cost; the employer the other third.
U.S. K–12 education is adapting this approach to create debt-free teacher apprenticeships that award bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The nonprofit Reach University is a leader in this, with its affiliates Oxford Teacher’s College undergraduate school of education and Reach Institute graduate school. They offer eight degrees and certificate programs that enroll over 1,500 students. The federal Pell Grant typically covers all but $2,000 in costs, with philanthropy or U.S. Department of Labor funds covering most of the balance, with a student contribution capped at $900 a year. The U.S. Departments of Education and Labor are creating paid registered apprenticeship programs for teaching, with the first program approved in Tennessee.
Apprenticeships create opportunity pluralism, where many pathways lead to human flourishing rather than the one route of college for all. In refusing to equalize opportunity along the single route of college for all, these earn-and-learn apprenticeships make the nation’s opportunity infrastructure pluralistic.
They develop in young people two important elements for lifelong success: knowledge and relationships. As the adage goes, it is not only what you know but also who you know. Moreover, this earn-and-learn approach equips young people with not only knowledge that pays but also relationships that are priceless. The goal for K–12 schools is no longer only college for all but earn-and-learn opportunity pluralism where many pathways lead to human flourishing.