For five years, we have been studying our Cumberland Valley School District students’ progress through college. Our aim has been to consider programmatic changes we could make in high school that might better serve our students as they enter adulthood.
From year to year, our students have gone to college at a measurably greater rate than the national average. However, our research project uncovered that some of our students were “stopping out” of college altogether. Those who did graduate shouldered significant debt and many were not working in their chosen field of study. Many had settled into jobs close to home to pay off college debt. It seemed that for many of our students, college had become a very expensive sandbox.
In response, we have been developing several programs giving students opportunities to explore careers while still in high school so that—whether college-bound or not—they have greater direction upon graduation. One of the most successful of those is a training program giving our students an industry-recognized credential in the high-demand field of healthcare.
Their training is online, and additional hands-on clinical experience is provided at local employers. This article published in our local business journal shares more details, but for any school leaders interested in replicating the model, there are several important points to keep in mind.
Tie into local workforce development needs
As in many communities around the country, Cumberland Valley has a shortage of skilled workers in healthcare. Usually, employers look to local community colleges to develop skilled training programs, but high schools can also fill this need.
Getting such programs off the ground can be the most difficult part so having a knowledgeable workforce development partner is critical. Our partner is Emerge Education, which specializes in healthcare workforce development including the training, certification, and employer needs that give our students the best chance at landing good jobs.
Find a specialized training program and consider the long-term options for college
The specialized training needed in healthcare goes far beyond what the schools can provide. We turned to MedCerts because they specialize in online training that prepares individuals to take the industry-recognized certification exams in healthcare.
Our students also have an “articulated credit” option at several universities available to them through MedCerts’ network of university partners. That means any of our students could complete the training, land a well-paying entry-level job with a local employer, and also articulate up to a semester of college when they graduate from high school.
For those who want to go to college and perhaps couldn’t afford it, this could be the program they need. They can already be working in a well-paid, skilled healthcare job while attending college. It is a win-win: cutting down college costs while also boosting the certainty of their college degree choice.
Students are looking for career guidance so be prepared for overwhelming interest
Originally, our goal was to enroll 15 students in our first cohort. Interest was extraordinary, however, and we enrolled 66. This supports my observation that students are looking for more engaging opportunities in their senior year or are looking for a more direct pathway to a career upon high school graduation.
College is often a de facto choice in our district but it isn’t for every district and—as we discovered—it isn’t always cost-effective or even the right choice. Students are looking for something to help them narrow down their career path. Discovering what fits—or what doesn’t—in high school before your family has invested tens of thousands of dollars in a college education is a much wiser choice.
Invest district resources wisely and hire a manager
Behind the scenes, keeping this program going required a dedicated manager to work with partners and provide continuity for the students. In our original plans, we hadn’t fully realized how much management time would be needed. With the outside partners involved, it quickly became apparent that we needed one dedicated person to manage the training, the students, and the workforce connection.
Emerge Ed and MedCerts track our students through online training, but the on-the-ground work of assessments and hands-on experience requires a dedicated person at the school site.
Make the workforce connection solid
Our local healthcare employer partner is UPMC, which sends HR leaders to meet with our students during informational sessions and throughout their coursework. The UPMC team also offers in-person clinical and job shadow experiences. That alone is a worthy lesson and a terrific opportunity.
We have full confidence that our students will land these jobs. This is the first year so we don’t have employment statistics yet, but all indications suggest this is going to be a very successful, long-term program for Cumberland Valley. All students are at or ahead of their progress in the online course and no students have dropped out of the program. They are 100% engaged with each other and the content in their group sessions.
There is an enthusiasm among these students that is often lacking among seniors. It is no wonder why that is, either. Our students are motivated and see a career pathway offering a good wage, interesting work, and a pathway to advancement, more certifications, and possibly, also a college education.