The cost of groceries, cars, plane tickets—it seems like everything is going up these days. What’s not? The number of teenagers going to college. Recent statistics show that 685,000 fewer students were enrolled in undergraduate programs (both community colleges and four-year institutions) in spring 2022 than the previous spring. That’s a drop of 4.1 percent—steeper than the 3.5 percent decline the previous spring. To date, the college student body has shrunk by nearly 1.4 million or 9.4 percent during the pandemic.
One reason is that younger Americans, for better or worse, are starting to question the value of college. Among those with a bachelor’s degree or more, just 56 percent under age thirty think the benefits of their education exceed the cost. That compares with 82 percent of those age sixty or over.
While postsecondary education obviously remains valuable for students’ career prospects, escalating tuition costs—coupled with many young people saying they aren’t gaining job-ready skills—means that we need to do a much better job preparing both students who choose to go straight into the labor market after high school and those headed into college. One way that high schools can respond to increasing demand for career preparation is by helping their students attain industry-recognized credentials (IRCs).
Conferred on individuals by businesses, industry groups, or state certifying entities, these credentials signify a sufficient level of knowledge and skills in a particular domain, often through one or more assessments. For instance, the American Welding Society (AWS) issues several different types of welding certifications pertaining to inspection, engineering, education, and sales.
High school students most often earn IRCs through career and technical education (CTE), including “concentrating” in several related CTE courses. Some want an IRC, or at least its content, for personal reasons—so they can repair their own car, cook for their family, or even flip houses one day. Others see a high school IRC as part of a stack of credentials to be accumulated, a stack that may include some (or a lot of) college and additional vocational and technical instruction.
But the most straightforward reason for a high school IRC is to advance one’s prospects in the workforce. Yet we know almost nothing about whether IRCs better equip high school graduates to gain employment and earn a living wage. Neither do we know whether IRCs earned during high school make it likelier that students will build upon them when choosing college majors.
Texas has taken this seriously. In 2017, the Lone Star legislature directed the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to publish a list of approved IRCs that are recognized and valued by employers and to factor students’ receipt of such IRCs into the state’s school accountability system. Students who complete an approved IRC in Texas are now deemed to be college, career, and military ready (CCMR) in the state’s school accountability ratings.
Now, thanks to Fordham’s new study, How Attaining Industry-Recognized Credentials in High School Shapes Education and Employment Outcomes, we can see how young Texans with IRCs fare in their first year out of high school and can compare them with similar peers who lack IRCs. Matt Giani, director of research and data science at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted the study. Professor Giani has a history of successful projects that link Texas K–12 data to postsecondary and workforce outcomes.
His key findings include:
- IRCs earned in high school are mostly a positive for students who earn them compared to similar students who don’t, but those differences tend to be small.
- IRCs in agriculture, business, and health science are positively associated with college enrollment and persistence, but those in cosmetology, manufacturing, and transportation are negatively associated.
- The majority of students who earn IRCs are not employed in the industry most closely aligned with their credentials (if they enter the workforce), nor are they enrolled in related college majors (if they go to college).
- Career and technical programs that lead to IRCs today do not necessarily constitute a lower educational “track” for high school students.
That first finding in particular—that high school IRCs are a net positive for students who earn them but are not game changers—raises a lingering question: How else can we transform the high school experience for students so as to significantly boost their wages and career prospects once they are in the workforce?
Here are four ideas:
1. Stress the key roles of high schools—and middle schools, too—in helping students figure out their career interests and aptitudes.
If we really want young people to make the most of their last four years in K–12 education, we need high schools to help them align their aptitudes with their interests. This means using middle school to commence career exploration. Grades 5–8 are a good time for students to learn about different career options through exploratory and introductory CTE courses and to develop a plan for reaching future goals—perhaps gaining some exposure to coding, robotics, digital media, film production, and so on, all while also learning the essentials of a quality core curriculum.
Nobody is saying that twelve-year-olds should make major life decisions, but one way to help students learn about their options is to identify not only what they are interested in, but also what they are good at. One of us recently wrote about a new generation of aptitude assessments for middle and high schools where students complete a series of activities (or “brain games”) that “allow them to see career paths for themselves that line up with their aptitudes and are free of the race, class, and gender biases that tended to plague old-style interest inventories.” Such assessments focus on potential, not achievement, so “the results often tell kids about strengths in areas the children had thought were weaknesses.”
Strategies like these can open up new career paths for students to explore in middle school, as well as get them thinking sooner about which paths they want to take more seriously in high school. If we wait until students are eleventh or twelfth graders before we attempt to help them prepare for the world of work, we’ve done them a disservice.
2. Embrace approaches that are much more ambitious than IRCs, such as serious youth apprenticeship programs.
Exposure to the workforce in high school has generally benefitted students. For instance, prior research found that summer employment helps improve school outcomes for low-income youth. What’s more, students who work ten or so hours a week during the school year—even as early as grade nine—experience a boost in test scores and in the amount of schooling they complete. Thankfully, more states are calling for work-based learning programs, which, says Jobs for the Future, provide “real-world opportunities to apply the lessons learned in classroom settings, build professional networks, earn money while they learn, and get a head start on the road to a career.”
It makes sense, then, that the culminating high school experience for students choosing to go straight into the workforce should be an in-person, hands-on experience in a field in which the student has demonstrated aptitude—ideally by concentrating in a series of sequential CTE courses and earning an IRC in the same industry while engaging in a real-world apprenticeship (or at least the start of one). Such an approach must be high-quality and equitable; hence it’s encouraging that our results show that career and technical programs leading to IRCs do not constitute a lower educational “track.” Still, given historical concerns about adults doing the steering, these choices must also be student-initiated, which leaves open the possibility that many of these students will choose to return to formal education at a later point in time.
We can imagine a middle or high school continuum that moves students along a series of options ranging from less intensive and less transformational to more intensive and more transformational. Such a continuum might look like this:
- Career exploration
- CTE course taking
- CTE concentration
- IRCs (on top of CTE concentration)
- Youth apprenticeships
Several states have recently gotten serious about providing high-quality apprenticeships as capstone experiences for young people. Research on them is growing, with recent studies finding that apprentices earned significantly more than similar peers who completed only the accompanying course. Other studies find that apprenticeships boost employment and “decrease idleness” among male high school graduates who don’t enroll in college.
CareerWise Colorado operates a program in which participants split their time between high school and the workplace. Apprentices begin in grade eleven and finish in their thirteenth year, yielding both an IRC and a chance to earn debt-free college credit.
What these and similar programs recognize is that high schools must free up significant time in students’ schedules to accommodate apprenticeships, which almost surely means expanding the high school day, making generous use of dual-enrollment courses, or foregoing some traditional academic requirements.
Louisiana’s Fast Forward program includes a couple of these approaches:
As part of the Fast Forward program, students spend the majority of grades nine and ten on the high school campus, earning core graduation requirements.
Once they reach grades eleven and twelve, students spend the majority of their time on the postsecondary campus or a satellite location while dually enrolled in courses. This ensures students complete their graduation requirements while also earning an associate’s degree or earning on-the-job experience participating in a state-registered pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship.
3. Encourage stackable credentials.
Many IRCs worth getting—because they relate to good jobs and authentic careers—cannot be completed while in high school. The high school version is a solid stepping stone, however, which is why the idea of stackable credentials needs to be taken seriously. As the term implies, these credentials build on one another well beyond high school, often embedding certifications that help students quickly and cost-effectively gain skills that lead to employment.
Stackable credentials can be more or less useful, however, as the skills and knowledge earned through some IRCs are more tightly linked to particular industries. The IT and health science fields tend to be more amenable to stacking, while those in retail trade and manufacturing are less so.
A better understanding of the fields that already boast fruitful stackable certifications would benefit workers and employers alike. So would development of more such stacks in high-demand fields. Indeed, recent research in Virginia showed how stacking can affect one’s labor-market outcomes. Adults who completed a stacked credential were 4 percentage points more likely to be employed than non-stackers and earned about $375 more each quarter.
4. Make state accountability systems more selective regarding which high school IRCs count in their college- and career-ready indices.
More than half of states report including K–12 IRC attainment measures in their accountability systems. But many of them are awfully lenient in terms of which credentials count as part of college and career readiness.
We need truth in advertising. A certification in a popular desktop program is not the same as one that combines hands-on, industry-specific skills and tech-specific software. We might benefit from a credentialing hierarchy, perhaps one that distinguishes among “building block” or general readiness skills (such as basic first aid, financial literacy, and general safety), stackable certifications, and capstone credentials that demonstrate mastery or advance careers.
Credentials Matter looked at thirty states and found that Microsoft Office Specialist was the most commonly earned credential (it was second in popularity in this report). But they termed it a “nice to have” because “overall, employers do not [specifically] request credentials to prove software competence, and most people learn and validate these in-demand skills through other means.” Further, “states, educators, and employers [need] to help students prioritize the credentials that will carry the most value in the workforce given the time and resource constraints inherent in schools.”
We agree. General skills are important to have but do not deserve much weight in a statewide accountability system that prizes high-skill, high-wage occupations. States need to be more discerning regarding what counts and what doesn’t.
This first-of-its-kind report gives us an in-depth look into the value of IRCs in a state that takes them seriously and has invested in them. We hope that other studies will trace the impact of IRCs in other states and for longer timeframes.
In the meantime, we very much need to distinguish between two purposes of IRCs: the “must haves” and the “nice to haves.” As for the latter, of course let’s leave room for students to obtain these credentials because they enjoy the work and see real-life value in them. But let’s not forget that these are industry-recognized credentials. The “must have” is to promote job success. Yet the kind of IRCs you can earn while in high school are often just a starting point. That’s because most high school IRCs need to be linked to meaningful CTE programs that include high-quality apprenticeship and internship programs and myriad other opportunities to gain additional credentials, often including further study of some kind after graduating.
There’s not enough of that happening. If we’re serious about helping students to succeed on the job, this needs to change.