Certified to Succeed

The Story:

We've all heard that a high school diploma alone is no longer sufficient for most students to maximize their career earning potential. According to the Social Security Administration, men with bachelor's degrees earn roughly $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates, while men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more. The same trend holds true for women, as well.

However, it's becoming increasingly clear that college on its own isn't a simple and straightforward solution to a better quality of life. Students increasingly find themselves carrying a staggering amount of debt away from their undergraduate and graduate studies.

As of 2018, an incredible $1.5 trillion in US student loan debt was being carried – compare that to the $620 billion of total US credit card debt – while Class of 2017 graduates were carrying, on average, more than $39,400 of student loans as they walked across the graduation stage.

Despite these heavy loads, the route to a return on that investment isn't always clear. Employers are finding that many students leave college still lacking the skills they so desperately need, for which they'll compensate highly in a tight job market. The Smithsonian Institute notes that roughly 2.4 million jobs in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – fields have gone unfilled as of 2018, and minorities remain deeply underrepresented across the board.

Meanwhile, NPR notes that trade jobs, such as those focused on carpentry, electrical work, plumbing, pipe-fitting, and more – are increasingly difficult for construction companies to fill. Similarly, many highly compensated health care jobs don't require a four-year degree, but instead require a more specialized track of education. This is to say nothing of the vast number of Information Technology positions that place almost no weight on holding a college degree, while heavily prizing applicants who've demonstrated their skills by earning industry-recognized certifications.

In all, Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce notes that roughly 30 million US jobs pay an average of $55,000 per year with no bachelor's degree requirement, while the average college graduate can expected to make roughly $50,000 after walking across the graduation stage.

Given the inertia of educational practices, difficulties with skilled worker immigration, and the continued shift in our economy away from the sort of clerical and managerial roles that benefitted most from a general college degree, and towards deeper levels of expertise and specialization, this is a trend that will only continue to grow. While higher education must adapt to these changes in its own way, it's essential that K-12 education leads the way, better preparing students to be highly compensated, successful in their fields of choice, and unburdened with the shackles of student loans that don't offer an effective rate of return.

The Solution:

Duval County Schools offer one of the most successful and varied magnet programs in the country. Approximately 20,000 students take part in magnet programs in 71 different Duval schools, across 30 different programs. Additionally, the district offers a variety of choice programs, acceleration programs, and career cluster options that enhance school choice and tailor educational options to fit the needs and interests of each student. This is a fantastic start, but with small changes, something even greater is possible.

Duval County offers dozens of career pathways in its high schools to students, ranging from training in 3D animation technology to applied cybersecurity, building construction technologies, industrial biotechnology, and web development. This is in addition to the dedicated magnet programs focused on robotics, automotive, aviation, carpentry, culinary arts, electrical work, HVAC, welding, and more. These programs are helping our students prepare for tomorrow's jobs, and leaving them better positioned whether they choose to enter the job market right away or continue their education at a college or technical school.

However, not all of our career magnet and career pathway programs result in what matters most: independent proof of learning and expertise in the form of industry-recognized certifications. These certifications play the same role that Advanced Placement courses do for colleges: serve as proof, often when paired with a standardized exam, that learning objectives have been met to the satisfaction of an objective observer. AP classes prove that students are knowledgeable enough to skip courses that would otherwise be required in college, and industry-recognized certifications prove that students are knowledgeable enough to get the job done.

In addition to offering more value to our students, there's a hidden benefit to a certification-centric approach to our career education options. While Florida state funding per student has fallen 11% since 2008 on an inflation-adjusted basis, the state legislature has recognized the value of these certifications to students' futures and to employers, and has implemented an incentive for schools who successfully guide students in earning them. Schools receive a bonus of 10-20% more funding per student in most cases, with certain certifications offering bonuses of 50% or even 100% additional funding. This provides sorely needed funds back to our schools while greatly improving the value of students' educations.

Over 100 such certifications are currently recognized by the state and can be offered in Duval County Schools. These include many options that infuse technology and the arts in ways that can help to preserve fine arts programs in our schools. The options are vast, ranging from CAD design and architecture software, to medical certifications, computer networking, milling, welding, agricultural technology, LEED Green construction, aerospace, engineering, programming, and even firefighting. And with businesses desperate for qualified and knowledgeable job candidates, there exists a strong opportunity to partner with companies to provide students hands-on experience and access to necessary learning environments.

By ensuring our magnet and career pathway programs yield industry-recognized certifications, we can make our education options more sustainable, applicable, and valuable for both our students and schools.