This is the second episode in a series of conversations with education thinkers from across the country. In this episode Dr. Balfanz is joined by Joel Vargas, Vice President of Programs at Jobs For the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives change in the American workforce and education systems to achieve economic advancement for all.
It has become a common refrain during the last year and a half that we should not return to the pre-pandemic “normal,” but use the disruption to create a better education system moving forward. One big and bold idea from JFF involves reimagining the last two years of high school and first two years of college.
Welcome to Designing Education, the Pathways to Adult Success podcast series. I'm Dr. Robert Balfanz, director of the Pathways to Adult Success program and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. I'm delighted to have you join us today. This is the second episode in a series of conversations we'll be having with educational thinkers from across the country. We'll talk about what it will take to design an education system that truly empowers all young people and sets up a pathway to long-term success. In today's episode, I'll be joined by Joel Vargas. Joel is the Vice President of Programs at Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit that drives change in the American workforce and education systems to achieve economic advancement for all.
It has become a common refrain during the last year and a half that we should not return to things as they were before the pandemic, but use this disruption to create a better education system moving forward. One big and bold idea on how to do so comes from JFF in a recent publication titled “The Big Blur: An Argument for Erasing the Boundaries Between High School, College, and Careers, and Creating One New System That Works for Everyone.” It involves reimagining the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. There is urgency to this work. We know that even before the pandemic, the path from high school to a family-supporting job was closed off to far too many young adults. The current system was neither sufficient before the pandemic nor adaptive enough during it. The question is, how can we do better? Welcome, Joel, and thank you for joining me today.
Great to be here. Thanks for having me.
It's going to be a great conversation. You're proposing a big change. You call it the Big Blur and you want to reimagine the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. Can you tell us just what you're thinking here, what you're trying to do and why we need to do it?
Yeah, well, thanks for inviting me to share the ideas that we captured in the paper. As the name suggests, we're really calling for a blurring of the boundaries between what we traditionally conceive of as our high school experience. A lot of us went through that. Most of us went through that. A lot of us, especially in the policy making world, then went to college; maybe we went to a community college first and then went on to a four-year, or went straight to a four-year. And that is supposed to purportedly prepare us for some kind of career. And then we know that in actuality, what you major in, in college, doesn't always play out into what you end up doing as a career.
So we thought, in this day and age, that whole set of relationships between institutions had to get tighter. And actually, we wondered why we still relied on that system in many ways when that system, or those systems, grew up in a different time. They grew up in the industrial age when we had a very different economy and truth be told, we now have an economy that demands more post-secondary training, and educated workers. So we gave ourselves permission to try to rethink the system, reimagine as you said. So, just to encapsulate what we thought, what if you rearranged what we currently think of as grades 11 through 14, the last two years of high school and the first two years of post-secondary, and put those together instead of separating them.
That would mean that maybe the current high school that we know today would only run up through grade 10. It would mean essentially, in some respects, a merger between the last two years of high school and the first two years of college. But as I say that, I also hesitate to say that because we wanted to conjure a new vision for a new kind of institution that would be, in essence, something that's built for older adolescents. There's not much difference between the student who is a graduate of grade 12, and then shows up in a community college classroom, or in the first year of a four-year college, but we treat them quite differently. And so we wondered, what if you put those together and really intentionally designed for those populations and furthermore connected their experience to the needs of local industry.
Not to mention the future of work in general, sort of a core skillset that they keep going on in their education or to be adaptable to what we know is going to be a new economy, that we have in fact now, where jobs are destroyed and created with some frequency, so people don't hang on the same job for 30 years anymore. They have to learn to be adaptable and transfer their skills to new contexts. So anyway, the institutions would be cost free for students. So essentially, they get a post-secondary education, a post-secondary credential or degree up to two years for free. They could then go on and get a good job at the end of that experience with that post-secondary training, or they could keep going to a BA.
So the design would account for that and be built for those. So you would create financing streams that would really be applied to supporting students in these grade levels. You would have staff, teachers and professors who would actually be trained to teach in these institutions and to teach this age group, and also to understand the industry demands that students are going to need to meet, and then they would be governed. You would have someone at a governor's office or—you wouldn't have a department of ed and higher ed anymore, necessarily; you might have a department of whatever you would call a blur of institutions. And they would really hold the field accountable for outcomes for students attending these institutions.
And the grade levels. You asked why we conceived to this. I sort of spoke to that previously, but it's born a bit out of impatience, to be frank. I mean, we have as a country really been focused on postsecondary attainment for all and improving that, and especially for black, Latinx, and low-income youth, and there have been some improvements. And we cheer those on and we've been proud to be a part of alliances that have really helped to move the needle, but that needle is moving so slowly and we think it's in part because the systems aren't designed well. So, in part this is saying, we need to redesign the systems to get the outcomes that we want.
I'm going to pick up on that. As you know, implicit and I guess explicit in a call for big change is a critique of the current system, and saying the current system isn’t working, right? We don't need big change if the current system is working well. And on one hand, we can say that, that there are signs all around us that that's true. One that sticks with me is that pre-pandemic, some—in most states between one in five and one in four—high school students were chronically absent, missing a month or more of school, which tells me that basically they were voting with their feet. That as it was currently designed, the high school wasn't working for them. And then during the pandemic, we know that some students expressed that they felt more agency working part-time to help support their family through the pandemic than they did in school.
And they actually felt like they were making a difference helping their family, being independent. And then the challenge there, of course, is that those jobs that look pretty good at 17 don't look good at 25, right? There isn't really a pathway from that part-time service work. So I guess my question is, I wanted to hear your thoughts on what are some of the big flaws of the current system that really call out for a need to build a better new system.
Yeah. These are really great points, Bob. But I actually think that one of the reasons that young people drift and take time to figure things out, in part, it's a normal part of development, right? To change your mind, try to figure things out, change course. I feel like the experience and the systems that we've set up around the way of helping young people navigate through that—high school, then college, and then you'll figure out what your career you want—it does not structure in the kind of experiences that young people need to try out things and to figure out, “Hey, you know, I thought I wanted to get into healthcare, but the sight of blood really is not something that I want to deal with every day.
“And, you know, I'm gonna change course.” Well, wouldn't you want to find that out a lot earlier? And I feel like our high schools kind of sequester off young people to sort of think about those things in theory, rather than experiencing their future possible future selves and even through some trial and error deciding, “No, I want to take a different route.” So I think we could structure those kind of experiences earlier. Also build up some momentum in college earlier. We know through a lot of research that credit accumulation is a good sign in college of completing, and if you do that earlier through dual enrollment experiences, early college, you can build that momentum early. And just to affirm something you said earlier, I do think young people are voting with their feet.
There are three signs that I feel like call for a blurring approach. One is, there is increasing interest in a proliferation of dual enrollment and early college approaches. And increasingly it's kind of a hybrid of this or part of the same idea, grade 13 efforts where you have really high-performing high schools that have, by many measures, prepared their students for college according to college readiness measures and accountability. And then they found that their students go to college and flame out for various reasons. So they're beginning to build bridges into post-secondary for their students and provide some high school support. So there's this instant reaction happening already, which is saying, “Let’s build some bridges earlier into college for young people.” The other is, is our youth demographic is shrinking. People are not having as many babies as they used to.
Community college enrollments were shrinking even before the pandemic. And now that's just accelerated because of the pandemic and they're maintaining their enrollments in many places through dual enrollment, by serving high school students. So there's some merging going on already. And then, you probably know these results better than I, but there are a lot of survey results coming out of students and parents where students are showing increasing numbers of questions about the return on investment in college and questioning that they're worrying about the debt load and they want routes that are faster to careers.
Yeah, I think it's really interesting. I think in many ways the youth are leading the way though. Not in a maybe systematic and fully clear way, but another thing I've noticed is that many students actually experienced during the pandemic something closer to a college-like existence in high school: typically, in high school, they just had zoom classes for a couple hours in the morning, and the rest of the day, the kids were given asynchronous assignments—do this work on your own. And that's much closer to a college schedule. You go to class for less time, but you spend more time working independently. They are saying they like that. They found that to be a better system because it let them figure out when they did that work if they didn't have to do it in the confines of the school day. They want both, right? Which makes sense. And that really is that blurring of college and high school and work; they're asking for it. All right. So if the youth are there, the status quo often isn't right. And we know that that's pretty hard to change, and there are a lot of voices in education to keep things as they are. So what do you think are some of the biggest barriers that will be encountered in trying to reimagine this high school to college space?
Yeah, I'll start by saying that I agree with your point that I see a lot of barriers and I've actually been pleasantly surprised that the reception of this paper has been greeted with a lot of head nodding in the field at all levels, and applause like, yes, this is the right idea. Now, what do I do? Because to speak to the barriers you go back to the day to day, and people have to envision what they can do to move towards this vision from where they sit, which is in a system and a silo that's really hard to push against, especially when they're being held, at every level, accountable for what the institutions are supposed to be doing. Now, that's changing a little bit; there are some states that have opened up their graduation requirements and accountability systems to encourage more of these kind of approaches, early college as well as early experiences.
But by and large, high schools are still held accountable for teaching the standards, and for colleges, it has been a sea change. So I don't mean to discourage, but they're focused on the completion agenda, getting more of their students who they start with through to graduation. And it's funny because again, by and large, I feel like the colleges still haven't made the connection: that part of the solution to that problem is reaching down earlier, and finding and working with students when they're younger and forming partnerships with local high schools. And looking up, I think too few of them also see that there are ways that they need to create tighter relationships to the labor market. And with industry, I am painting with a broad brush here, but I say by and large, they're not held accountable for that. It's not something that accreditors look for in terms of outcomes. So when you have folks who want to change and they're still in their systems, and it's hard for them to figure out how to bust out of that and move towards something that's a bit more transformational. So the natural drift is to status quo. I have some ideas about how you start to poke through that a little bit, but those are just some of the barriers that we have to respect. Yeah.
It's interesting. It seems like a better deal. It seems right. It's less costly. It leads to something that's more attuned, so that my kids can earn an income and become self-supporting and not end up back in my couch. Right. On the other hand, in many years of working for school improvement, I've come up with this, you know, acronym, which is SPSSQ, which is Successful Parents in Support of the Status Quo, which is, “It worked for me, and I'm gonna fight to the end to make sure my kids get the same thing, because I see education has made my path to where I am, and I wanna make sure my kids have that, which I know works.” And in that same parent, on different days, you might find support and challenge based on their head space. So I think that's an interesting part of the puzzle. So building on that, what do you think are some of the steps we need to take to get to this new model, and does the pandemic give us some openings that might not have been there?
And when parents see their students feeling good about their education experience, I think they tend to go with that. And along the way, they say, “Oh, and you're getting this, if it's a situation where they're getting it for free, terrific. You know, that’s a cost savings for us down the road.” So there's no better way to evangelize than through actually having people experience it, instead of trying to start with shoving an idea down their throat about another reform. I think this kind of nudging is going to be really important, and then building off of that. So not just any old dual enrollment, but I feel like the next generation of that work is having colleges hearkening back to my earlier point, about colleges seeing the college completion issue and having a key strategy be reaching down to younger students and reaching down to them with guided pathways. Colleges increasingly are seeing this as something they need to do for their “regular” students: creating clear program maps that are mapped to a clear career pathway for students, and having that be more transparent for the adults and the young people that they serve.
Why not start earlier with that approach and really use it as a strategy, so that students are coming in and they've got a head start on the degree or credential. That kind of thoughtful design, I think, is the next generation of dual enrollment work. So it's not just an add-on, but it's seen as something that's just become a more integral part of high school and that, short of a full blur, would look pretty good; that would start to look like a blur. So that's one of the ways we thought about it, taking advantage of those pushes that are already happening in small blurry ways and making them even blurrier.
And one thing that I think could help build upon that, is that, although I know in different states, they have different formal and informal rules, but governors are one of the few folks that sit astride both the higher ed and the K12 system. And I think part of our real struggle in creating something better is that at the state level, where a good share of their funding is, is that K12 and higher ed sort of compete against each other for appropriations every year. Right? So they're the opposite of good friends. They're competing for dollars, and that that's not going to work. It's really only a governor that could say that's sort of insane. And this is an era when our health of our state depends on us graduating students ready to support their families.
If we don't graduate kids who can support families, we're sunk. And so, I really think someone has to bring folks together and say, look, it's a new world, and it has to be about cooperation and a win. There's a way to make this be a win-win for both of you. It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game, but someone has to step into that. think that to me, it seems like some force has to step in because otherwise there's things pulling people apart, even when they should be together.
I couldn't agree more. I mean, at the end of the day, taking these bigger step changes, it's going to require governors, maybe even mayors. Again, they're held back a bit by state policy, but they have a bully pulpit and they do have some authority to bring people together in a different way and make resources flow a different way. So I do think they also tend to come with business. They can come with business behind them, business and industry. And I think that's another force, those two forces: the executive leadership in cities and states, along with business and industry, can kind of ignite faster moves towards this kind of vision.
Yeah. And the other thing I think is that potentially, it can be hoped that at that level, if a couple of states do it and it's successful, the others will follow. States look at each other and they do follow each other. And one thing I've seen is that a small thing, but I think it could, to your point, be a big lever, for dual enrollment is in Ohio. Now they have a system where you can use standards for multiple subjects and say, if you meet both those standards, you actually get two credits for that class. And often it's a CTE class and an academic class. And that has the result that now that you have two credits for one class, you have more time for exponential learning.
So they're almost taking that idea of standards and turning it around and using it to their advantage to say, well, if the standards are what matter, it's not how many courses you take. It's how many standards you need, and they're using that to create the space. So I think that's a small example of how people can work within the system and find new ways. But I want to bring us back down to the schoolhouse door. We all agree that the big change happens at higher levels, but the work happens in schools. And we know schools are struggling right now. It's been a rocky reopening, there are staff shortages, which has made folks even more tired and exhausted. And so there's been this growing push in some cases just to get back to whatever normal is in that environment. What are you hearing from educators and folks on the ground about the need for, the desire, or excitement about rethinking high school into college?
Speaker 3 (23:10):
Again, I think in theory, it's a welcome vision and an instinct that this is what we ought to be trying to do, but on the day-to-day level, you're right, Bob, it's like, “We gotta get back to normal first, and we gotta figure out the right social distancing space between students and just have them come back and make sure everybody's vaccinated,” you know, whatever. Young people have lost their social skills because they haven't been in school settings. So, it feels like a crisis management in many ways. So, even though it's been welcome, my experiences at all levels, including at the schoolhouse level, with, not open arms, but with some enthusiasm, but then, what should I do next, is a question; and what are my incentives?
And I'll admit we don't always give you some versions of how you build slowly towards this. So in the same spirit, I think there are things to build on that the school house level, even the college campus level, that I've seen in the past that could present some opportunities for leverage. And one is high school educators, if they do dual enrollment—not as many college educators do, but some of them, a critical mass— [they say,] I didn't see the benefits of this. And it's an eye opener, when [college educators] realize that a high school student has been in their class, that they thought the whole time was a regular college student, and they say, oh, this young person's really got something here. This is great. I wish I had more of them. For high school teachers, a lot of them see the extra privilege and prestige of being both a high school instructor and a college instructor, for example, and where the magic really happens.
Although I would say it's rare, we've seen instances where the school district or a high school and college partner actually do some joint professional development and curriculum design around their dual enrollment. That really goes a long way to breaking down the walls that they have and the preconceived notions of whose job it is to do what, and they really welcome that kind of joint PD and perspective sharing. That was another thing early on that got me, when I saw those. Although it's rare, when I've seen that happen, it made me think, there is something to this idea of training educators to support mid to older adolescents. There's something there that they can share in that experience when it's done in a spirit of co-design.
So I feel like we could define some opportunities for high school teachers to engage in externships into industry, so that they learn more about the demands of careers that they should be preparing their students for, so that they have to stay up to date or learn afresh about new industries and the skills that you need. They really enjoy that. I feel like those are things we could build off of to create the school level demand and also competencies for doing blur approaches. So as you can see, I'm looking for any opportunity and leverage we can get to create some positive will and momentum
That's the way real change happens. And one thing I've noticed is a significant change at the high school level. I would agree with the growth of dual enrollment, but also the reinvention of CTE and the destigmatization of it. I'm noticing more and more teachers, English teachers, math teachers, core academic subject teachers, really advocating for their students to have more internships and more experiential learning and more career development, and not as a way of saying, “Oh, you're not quite up to academics. You should go here,” which was the stigma that still exists and that we still have to be on guard against, but really in the spirit of, “No, we're not providing our students enough exploration of the possibilities of the world. And just this narrow focus of take your classes, do well and go to college and don't think about it isn't really necessarily the best way for, for youth development.”
Yeah, I agree. And what I fear is also the flip side. We don't want tracking to happen where this is, these are dumping grounds, right? Or other people's pathways. And what I see happening on the other hand too, is there are high-quality pathways that are suddenly hard for low-income and black and Latinx students to have access to, because they're good and they're very attractive, becoming more attractive to students who probably would figure this out on their own anyway. So it's hard to strike that balance.
Yeah. Let's dig a little deeper on the equity challenge here. I think that at the biggest level, this whole idea is an equity idea, but in the execution you're right. There could be unintended consequences and the early adopters could be co-opted by those that see it as the more, you know, it makes total sense. If you have advantages, you want to preserve them for your kids and you're going to be on the lookout for all the avenues that provide that. So what are some of the equity challenges we might face here? Not so much in the design, but I think in the rollout, you were starting to talk about some of those.
Well, I think the big idea is, the more you create something, that’s good, right? You have to find first of all, the adult capacity to execute these ideas. And we know that varies widely by communities and being able to attract folks. So that's an intractable problem. I don't even know how to start to get my head around that. But the big idea we were sort of playing with is, the more I've seen this with early college schools, you know, we really targeted low-income first-generation populations, but the more success those schools showed, which was great with those populations, the more demand there was from communities and parents in those communities to get their kids into those schools. So it became tougher for low-income and first-gen students to get into them.
And I think actually fundamental to the big blur happening is this idea of a series of experiences, exposures, applications, and doing in both college and careers. So that's internships, dual enrollment, industry-based certifications, that whole sequence has to become universal for everybody. Right now, we get very excited by saying, oh, we've expanded our internship program. It went from 5% of our kids to 10% of our kids. And that gets back to your earlier point of this very slow, incremental improvement place we're in right now, where we're trying to just marginally increase access to existing programs, when really it has to be the much more transformational thing where the common experience for all kids in high school should be to have this wide range of both college and career exposures, experiences, and applications, which take it all the way to the big blur. Right? And you're you're in what formerly would have been 12th grade and it's no longer not clear how much of your day you're in high school and how much is in college. Right?
Speaker 3 (31:35):
Yeah, I totally agree. I would add one more sort of equity concern that I can see already happening now with the resurgence of CTE, which I think is terrific in many respects, that you already mentioned. I think the danger is still having folks—and I can see it even with state legislators that we've spoken to about lower approaches or even CTE pathways—who say, “That's great, because we've got so many kids who are not gonna go to college,” and “they weren't made to go to college,” in some ways is the implication. And I think you and I know that the highest quality sort of CTE programs actually prepare young people quite well for college experience as well. So really, talking about this work as college and career readiness and success, not or, [but] too many times it's framed as a college or career proposition. And I think that leads to the dangers of tracking and low-quality programming.
Yeah, indeed, indeed. So I want to end with a question on communications. One of the last big ideas that hit the educational policy and practice world was the common core. And for a while, this was like a media rocket, right? It was maybe a last bipartisan idea in education. It was driven by governors, bipartisan governors supported by a wide spectrum of the educational policy world and, you know, was adopted by state legislatures. Right? Which is hard to imagine in our current state. And then it sort of died on the vine, partly, I would argue, as a communication challenge back to parents because at the governor and the state level, it was so old as an economic development idea.
Speaker 1 (33:43):
We've got to be competitive internationally. Our kids have got to all learn these core, big, important ideas that are linked to college readiness. And that's what we need to stay competitive. And I think when they tried to explain this to parents at that level, they didn't care. They didn't feel like their kids were competing for a job with someone from another country. Maybe even if they were, they didn't see it; they wanted their kid to succeed and do well in the current. And that's as much about competing against their neighbors to get into selective schools as it is about competing with the world. I always have thought they should have made it more about, “Don't you want your kid to know more than you?”—something like that. That they might have had a better chance, right? As opposed to, we're doing this to be competitive internationally. So I'm just wondering about the big blur and communicating it and where maybe there are pitfalls and opportunities and how to present it, both at the political policy level where you have to operate, but then also back on that ground parent level where we've got to really get them behind it as well.
Yeah. It's a great question. And it is going to be really difficult to boil down to a simple set of messages, right? Apropos our earlier conversation, it's got to be about college- and career-ready. And it took me a minute to explain it. Maybe I wasn't as cogent as I could have been, but that tells me we're going to have to really boil this down to some easily understandable messages, and compelling for parents. So I think that is the toughest challenge. I mean, I can talk about the policymaker part, because I think that one's actually a little easier.
No, I mean, we know very much the parents are nervous and students are nervous about debt. Sometimes they don't even fully understand it. I've always told some college friends that, until they find a solution for it, if a kid comes home and says, I want to go to X, Y, and Z university, the first thing someone is going to do is to put that university into their phone and it's going to pop up a very big number, which is the sticker price for room and board. And you could do all the talking you want about financial aid, it's hard to live down that first sticker shock of $45,000 a year when that's greater than the family's income. So I really do think that clear communication that this is a way to give your kid a real leg up on the future. That it's not going to break the family’s back financially, or make you make these huge hard choices between my kids' future and our ability to survive day to day.
Absolutely. Yeah. So, I don't know. I mean, I think the policy maker angle is a little easier. We've had a lot of interest from states that said, tell us how we might build on what we've already done to and do more. We had one state that actually was in the middle of a task force, really rethinking its higher education system and used the big blur to inform their deliberations and recommendations. So I'm hoping that that leads to some kinds of changes along the lines of what we discussed earlier. Even if they're incremental, I think they'll end up nudging the system more in this direction.
Well, thank you, Joel, for this stimulating conversation and bold ideas that you're working on and making come true to really help build pathways to adult success for all our youth. This conversation on JFF’s work in general and the big blur specifically, I think really brings home that the world has changed and we need to build educational systems for the world where it is, not where it was. And it's clear, this is going to really involve rethinking the high school, the college space, and really, I encourage everybody to dig deep into the big blur and the work, and be stimulated by these really provocative and hopeful ideas on how we can do this better and serve all our students in all our families and give them a really clean path to their future. And then our future. This is Robert Balfanz from the Everyone Graduates Center. Glad to be with you today. Be sure to join us for our next edition of the Designing Education podcast series. Onwards, and be well. Thank you.