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Equitable pathways to upward mobility

Published: September 2, 2021

How can students prepare for careers without putting them into financial ruin?

Do you know how much a traditional four-year degree costs? Jaleesa Bustamante (2019) estimated that “the average in-state student attending a public four-year institution spends $25,615 for one academic year. Taking into account student loan interest and loss of income, the ultimate cost of a bachelor’s degree may exceed $400,000.” 

In addition to being expensive, the traditional four-year degree is not equitable to all students. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds as well as those who are in the racial minority find it more difficult to be accepted into and pay for traditional four-year degree programs. So how can these students prepare for careers in a more equitable and affordable way?

What are some other ways for students to prepare for careers?

The first step is to help students increase their awareness of careers, so they can select a career field that best suits them and start along a pathway to that career. There are multiple ways to increase awareness of careers in education. First, schools can start embedding career exploration into the existing curriculum to give students exposure and help them explore the many career options available. Second, schools can add entire career courses to their list of offerings. Third, at the very least, schools can incorporate extracurricular opportunities, such as clubs, camps, or competitions, to provide students with the chance to explore career topics. 

Optimally, schools would use all of these methods together. The biggest challenge is finding the resources to do so. WorkED’s programs meet requirements for the district- or school-level career-technical education funds as well as federal and state education funding.

Once students are interested in a career, they can begin taking courses aligned directly to that career through a career-technical education program. As they learn the knowledge and skills they will need in a specific career, they can add on an appropriate work-based learning model to gain more experience.

Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy (2019), determined that there are four major work-based learning models: 1) internship, 2) co-operative education (co-op), 3) practicum and clinical placement, and 4) apprenticeship. Internships are short-term work experiences that may be paid or unpaid and provide opportunities for students to gain some experience in fields related to their academic curriculum. Co-ops allow for more structured and deeper learning than internships and extend up to a year. They are usually integrated directly into an academic program. Practicums and clinical placements are often unpaid opportunities for students to gain work-based experience in health-related fields. Apprenticeships are often more formal and structured than the other work-based learning models. They are usually paid, full-time, on-the-job training programs where apprentices work closely with a skilled mentor to learn a job on the job site.

You may have heard about some work-based learning models, such as internships and apprenticeships. But have you ever heard of an externship? 

WorkED has created a way to provide students with work-based learning through externships that allow students to discover new concepts and techniques while collaborating with peers in work-based scenarios provided by professionals from major companies. These externships allow students to expand and test their skills in real-world work-based simulations.

Do these alternatives lead to the same career success as a traditional four-year degree?

Opportunity@Work (2020) conducted research of “more than 70 million workers who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs)” and found that “STARs are not able to leverage their skills for higher wage work the same way that workers with four-year college degrees do: only 39 percent of STARs’ transitions led to an increase in wages.” 

“STARs typically start at lower wages compared to workers with bachelor’s degrees. Over time, they make more transitions than their degreed counterparts and each transition carries a relatively high likelihood of wage decline. Wage gains, when they occur, are smaller.” (Opportunity@Work, 2020)

It may come as no surprise to you to learn that women and Black or Latinx workers are less likely to transition into higher-paying jobs. According to Opportunity@Work (2020), Black, Latinx, and women STARs are “are less well compensated for their skills.” 

Many expect that anyone willing to work hard and gain the skills through on-the-job training would be able to climb the economic ladder. However, it all depends on the career. Opportunity@Work (2020) considers jobs that are accessible from many different entry-level positions to be Gateway job. These are the type of jobs that yield higher wages over time. “Gateways jobs include jobs that employ high numbers of workers such as Customer Service Representatives, Computer Support Specialists, and Licensed Practical Nurses, and Licensed Vocational Nurses.”

Steve Lohr (2020) notes that “an office administrative assistant is a typical example of a low-paying job that can be a portal to a better one. The skills required, according to employer surveys by the Labor Department, include written and verbal communication, time management, problem solving, attention to detail, and fluency with office technology. In short, a skill set that is valuable in many jobs.”

Do all employers require candidates to have a traditional four-year degree?

Corliss Brown Thompson and Sean Gallagher (2020) found, in a 2018 national survey, “that half of U.S. employers were either exploring or already engaging in a competency-based hiring strategy—which was at the time due to both a tight job market and an interest in more equitable hiring. Recent research has further supported the idea that tens of millions of Americans—many of them individuals of color—have the skills to move into higher-wage jobs, but are limited by employers’ focus on educational credentials, particularly degrees.”

Steve Lohr (2020) states that “as many as 30 million American workers without four-year college degrees have the skills to realistically move into new jobs that pay on average 70 percent more than their current ones. That estimate comes from a collaboration of academic, nonprofit, and corporate researchers who mined data on occupations and skills. The findings point to the potential of upward mobility for millions of Americans, who might be able to climb from low-wage jobs to middle-income occupations or higher. But the research also shows the challenge that the workers face: They currently experience less income mobility than those holding a college degree, which is routinely regarded as a measure of skills. That widely shared assumption, the researchers say, is deeply flawed.”

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Becky Frankiewicz (2019) note that “as university qualifications become more commonplace, recruiters and employers will increasingly demand them, regardless of whether they are actually required for a specific job.” However, research suggests that academic grades are not as reliable as intelligence scores to determine a candidate’s ability to reason and think logically.

What can employers do to help workers gain the skills needed to earn higher wages?

Opportunity@Work (2020) suggests “employers of lower-wage jobs that do not require a traditional four-year degree define skills-based pathways to assist their employees in gaining the skills needed to earn higher wages as well as open positions up to those who have the skills to perform middle-wage roles regardless of their educational background.”

After the many challenges of the recent pandemic, employers have an “opportunity to reimagine a more equitable labor market. A workforce that works for STARs is a workforce that offers the opportunity to all workers.” (Opportunity@Work, 2020)

“For 74 percent of new jobs in America, employers frequently require four-year college degrees, according to a recent study. Screening by college degree excludes roughly two-thirds of American workers. But the impact is most pronounced on minorities, eliminating 76 percent of Blacks and 83 percent of Latinx.” (Lohr, 2020)

Chamorro-Premuzic and Frankiewicz (2019) suggest that employers should measure a candidate’s job potential instead of whether or not they received a degree. Employers need to reconsider how they screen for skilled and qualified candidates by keeping an open mind. Rather than require a traditional four-year college degree, employers should look for skills that are needed in the job and select candidates who meet the necessary requirements.

What can schools do to help students gain the skills needed to earn higher wages?

Thompson and Gallagher (2020) believe that experiential learning is “an under-used model that can help achieve greater educational and economic opportunity for students and workers of color. In such programs, students work on real-world projects that enable them to apply their academic knowledge, while learning professional skills and technical skills. Being able to practice their skills in a supportive environment while engaging in reflection gives them the opportunity to increase their belief that they can accomplish professional and career-related tasks and mindsets. In other words, students are able to develop their self-efficacy—which is important for all learners, but it has been identified as especially important for women and students of color in the STEM workforce pipeline. These experiences also allow students to develop the soft skills that employers say they want, often from the relationships they build with industry professionals, mentors, and peers.”

Work-based learning experiences can help prepare students for career success and help them determine which careers or pathways might best suit them. This is the benefit of WorkED. With an Experience Externship program, students will get firsthand experience and insight into the world of a technology career by exploring the fundamentals as well as real-world scenarios. Students will also interact with industry professionals.

Not only do students benefit from WorkED’s programs, but so do teachers and future employers. WorkED provides industry with the opportunity to interact with students and even help design challenges that allow students to test their knowledge and skills. Educators benefit by receiving materials and support as well as having industry at the table to help advance their career-technical education pathways and engage students with workplace learning. Check out a WorkED program today!


Bustamante, J. (2019, June 7). Average Cost of College & Tuition.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. & Becky Frankiewicz, B. (2019, January 7). Does Higher Education Still Prepare People for Jobs? Harvard Business Review.

Lohr, S. (2020, December 3). Up to 30 Million in U.S. Have the Skills to Earn 70% More, Researchers Say. The New York Times. 

Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education & Talent Strategy. (2019, November). Designing and Implementing Work-Based Learning: A Call To Action For CHROs. National Science Foundation.

Opportunity@Work. (2020, March). Navigate with the STARs: Reimagining Equitable Pathways to Mobility. Opportunity @ Work.

Thompson, C. B. & Gallagher, S. (2020, December 17). How Experiential Learning Can Improve Educational and Workforce Equity. EdSurge.