Fast-tracking associate degrees for students in need

A new grant program created and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aims to help high school students complete an associate degree or credential just a year after they graduate high school.

The program, called Accelerate ED: Seamless Pathways to Degrees and Careers, is giving 12 teams across the US approximately $175,000 each to scale existing initiatives that help students obtain an associate degree at the end of their “13th year.”

The 12 teams are composed of people who work in higher education, secondary schools, community organizations, industry and more. They are based in 12 different states: Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas and Utah.

Sara Allan, director of early learning and pathways at the Gates Foundation in the US, said Accelerate ED is a “learning grant” designed to help connect employers, youth-focused community organizations and K-12 and higher education leaders so they can figure out how to expand postsecondary opportunities for more students in their state.

“This particular grant is supporting a lot of work that’s already underway in each of these communities,” Allan said during a press conference. “The challenging thing for communities to do is to put all those together in a way that’s coherent and to design holistic programs that can take advantage of all of those opportunities. So our funding is really to create the time and space and design capacity to do that work, to plan how to scale.”

According to data from the Gates Foundation, 65 percent of jobs today require education and training beyond high school, which makes postsecondary credentials “a prerequisite to achieving greater social mobility and economic prosperity.” Allan said the grants will help the 12 teams create blueprints in their home states for expanding already-successful programs that provide 13th-year associate degrees.

Ohio’s 13th Year Pathway to Career Success, for example, allows high school students in Dayton, Ohio, who earn a certain number of college credits by their senior year to complete an associate degree a year later. Those students are then guaranteed acceptance into a four-year university in the state to complete their bachelor’s degree. The $175,000 grant will help expand the program beyond Dayton to 16 districts in Montgomery County and around the state.

Thomas Lasley, interim CEO of Learn to Earn Dayton and dean and professor emeritus at the University of Dayton, who is a member of the Ohio team, said the initiative gives students a low-cost opportunity to advance their education and start pursuing a career.

“As a former college dean, I am truly excited about the 13-year model and what it will mean for our students in Dayton and in Ohio,” Lasley said. “We have advocated for career pathways that mitigate college costs for years.”

Louisiana’s initiative, called Growing Bridge Year Pathways Across New Orleans, will allow three local training providers to expand their program so 11th and 12th graders can earn postsecondary credentials. The training providers—who cover a range of industries, including health care, engineering, manufacturing and culinary arts—will use Louisiana’s 13th-year bridge program to create pathways for students to earn an associate degree or equivalent industry-based credential.

The team will also work to increase enrollment in the program from 160 in 2022–23 to 250 in 2023–24 and create a guide to establishing career-technical education dual-enrollment courses for organizations throughout the state.

Jake Gleghorn, director of strategic initiatives at the New Orleans Career Center, said the team—which is made up entirely of employees of nonprofit community organizations—will create a list of resources to help students and their families navigate which pathway is best for them. He noted the team partnership will help the four nonprofits work together so they can reach more students.

“How can we work together and plan and design what that system looks like and grow enrollment together rather than competing with each other for seats and students?” he said.

An Austin, Tex., initiative called Scalable Success aims to expand the Texas Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) program—which allows students to receive both a high school diploma, technical credential and/or an associate degree—to reach more students across the state.

Organizations represented on the Texas team include E3 Alliance, an education collaborative in Austin; the Austin Community College District; four independent school districts; and others. Creslond Fannin, the executive director of early-college high school and P-TECH at the Austin Independent School District, said Austin Community College will serve over 1,000 students through a program that enables them to enter the workforce while also making their credentials stackable so they can pursue a higher degree if they wish.

The new Gates Foundation grant program was designed especially to help more Black and Latino students complete postsecondary degrees, Allan said. About 60 percent of Black and Latino high school graduates immediately enroll in a postsecondary program, according to the foundation’s data. Of those who enroll, only 38 percent of Black students and 46 percent of Latino students earn a postsecondary degree or certification in six years.

“This work has become even more urgent in the face of COVID-19, which has laid bare the inequities in our education and workforce systems and illustrated the stark differences in which students have access to these learning experiences and supports to maintain momentum from high school to postsecondary and into work and which do not,” Allan said. “In particular, we see many Black and Latino students and students from low-income backgrounds deferring their dreams and opting out of their pathways to take jobs to support their families and juggle other responsibilities.”

Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said she was happy to see the announcement of the grants. She added that anything higher education can do to clear pathways to completion is important.

“At AACC, we know that access isn’t enough,” Parham said. “We have to make sure that students are able to succeed and really create models, processes and systems that allow for that. So we are excited anytime we can clear a pathway to success.”

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