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After the disruption of the pandemic, people in the field of education are more open to rethinking traditional ways of doing business in order to better serve students.

One idea that’s been gaining steam since last year is to break down barriers between high school, college and career to create a system that bridges all three.

The concept is called the “Big Blur.”

Recently, the Big Blur was the topic of numerous conversations during a national conference hosted by Jobs for the Future (JFF) in New Orleans, where it was a subject of a panel discussion between industry leaders and two JFF officials: Joel Vargas, the organization’s vice president of programs, and Kyle Hartung, associate vice president.

In a July 2021 report, the two proposed blurring the last two years of high school with the first two years of college to modernize our secondary and post-secondary education and training systems and connect them “more tightly to the world of work and careers,” according to Vargas who, with Hartung, was among the report’s authors.

“What would it look like to change the typical, or what we think of as the conventional high school experience and instead design something that was built for the modern economy?” said Vargas.

Vargas said that JFF is arguing for new programs or institutions that serve students in grades 11 through 14 (grades 13 and 14 being the first two years of college, under our current configuration). The institutions would be co-designed with regional employers so that all students get work-based learning experiences and graduate — without tuition costs — with a post-secondary credential that has labor market value.

Hartung said it’s important to help families understand that there are multiple pathways to success, and a four-year college is only one of many. “To put all your chips in a singular one has not played out well for generations of young people and it’s created durable inequities, lack of wealth generation that are perpetuating themselves,” he said.

The JFF report has started conversations in K-12, higher education and the workforce about promoting change at the local level, said Brent Parton, the principal deputy assistant secretary and current acting assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (ETA).

The next step is for people to think about how this blurring can happen at scale, he said. “That’s where federal leadership comes in.” The ETA, he said, is working closely with the departments of education and commerce to promote the idea and encourage states and local communities to break down the barriers between these systems.

Parton said the challenges of the pandemic — including high rates of student absenteeism and disengagement — have prompted more interest in these conversations.

“It’s forcing K-12 to think differently in a way out of necessity,” Parton said. “In higher ed you’re looking at a tight labor market, wages are going up. There’s a search for how higher education can more fluidly engage with people who already in the workplace [and] help them upskill.”

His staff is beginning to see states take steps to prepare young people for careers at earlier ages, he said, such as an effort in Tennessee to start a registered teacher occupation apprenticeship program.

States and communities have funds and resources to try new approaches, thanks to the American Rescue Plan, Hartung added.

“Waiting until college and hoping that the dysfunctional career center sets them straight is just not a winning proposition. We’ve got to introduce the concept of career so much earlier.”

Cate Swinburn, president of the nonprofit organization YouthForce NOLA

Vargas pointed out that the concept of the Big Blur isn’t entirely new. In states such as Texas, Louisiana, Delaware, Illinois and Colorado, there are already programs in play.

In New Orleans, for example, YouthForce NOLA is part of a city-wide effort to help bridge the gap between school and the workforce, according to Cate Swinburn, president of the nonprofit organization. YouthForce is an education, business and civic collaborative that helps prepare public school students in New Orleans for in-demand career pathways.

The organization partners with schools in the city to place students in paid internships with employers in “high-wage, high-demand” careers. Students participate in the Career Pathway Programs of Study, through which they are exposed to different careers, build skills relevant to those careers, develop their professional network and get work experience as they graduate high school.

Swinburn, who also spoke on the panel during the JFF-hosted conference, said that when she asks young people and their parents about what success looks like post high-school graduation they mention four principal factors: happiness, prosperity, stability and financial independence.

“If we’re going to help our young people get to economic mobility, a great job in a career pathway has got to be a part of that,” Swinburn said. “Waiting until college and hoping that the dysfunctional career center sets them straight is just not a winning proposition. We’ve got to introduce the concept of career so much earlier.”

In Texas and Delaware, the Big Blur is happening on a more structured, at-scale level.

Some of Texas’s early-college high schools, which allow high schoolers to earn up to two years of college credits, are the result of a tri-agency effort between the Texas departments of education, higher ed and the workforce commission. While only a small number of schools currently offer the early-college program, Vargas said these schools are becoming a “substantial part of their high school system.”

In 2015, Delaware created the “Delaware Pathways” program, linking education to workforce training to provide students with training in various job sectors. The program is a collaborative effort between the state’s labor, education and higher ed departments, as well as local foundations, business and nonprofits. In 2016, the program enrolled about 50 students, but has now expanded across the state and is set to enroll 80 percent of the state’s high school population within the next two years, according to Hartung.

Doing the Big Blur nationally, and at scale, isn’t going to be easy. Since the separate systems — high school, college, and career training — are so entrenched, it will require leaders from all three sectors to collaborate and rethink what it should look like to get a high school diploma or a college degree and enter the workforce. The other big challenge, according to Parton is messaging.

“We have to communicate very clearly what it is and the value proposition,” Parton said. “People go to what they know is guaranteed or at least what is the closest thing to be guaranteed.”

He added that to get parents on board, they need to see that young people are benefiting, including by earning high school diplomas, accessing work-based learning opportunities that pay and earning post-secondary credentials.

Vargas added that a compelling case for the Big Blur is made through the advantage already offered by early-college high schools, where students take college coursework early for free, and later save money by transferring those credits to a four-year institution What the blur would add, according to Vargas, is a connection to an employment opportunity or learning on the job through an apprentice-type program.

“Those two things together,” he said, “it just kind of makes sense.”

This story about the Big Blur was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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