The following was published on Yahoo Finance. 

By: Rick Dalton, CEO and president; Jon Reidel, director of communications and GEAR UP programs; and Bob Seaberg, board of advisors, CFES Brilliant Pathways

To understand the causes of the crisis and ultimately to find solutions, we address three critical post-pandemic trends.

ESSEX, N.Y.June 9, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — COVID-19 wreaked havoc on K-12 and postsecondary education across the U.S. Test scores in foundational subject areas such as reading and math fell to their lowest levels in decades, absenteeism worsened, and students were more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to pursue post-secondary education.

For educators, this pandemic trauma transcends statistics. “It’s been like waking up from a bad dream and having the dream be real,” said Chris Bishop, assistant head of Jeremiah Burke Academy in Boston. “Our kids were in shambles academically. The aspirations of our children, especially our young men, dropped like a rock.”

Bishop’s nightmare is repeating itself nationwide, with many schools, especially those serving low-income and minority students, showing learning losses of more than a year in reading and math. Today’s students are projected to earn $70,000 less, on average, over their lifetimes, and the impact on the U.S. economy will total as much as $188 billion annually when this cohort enters the workforce.

To understand the causes of the crisis and ultimately to find solutionswe have identified–through surveys, focus groups, observations, and research studies–three critical post-pandemic trends:

  1. Males are falling behind. We are seeing widening gender gaps in high school graduation, college attendance, and completion of postsecondary studies. These gaps are especially concerning for low-income youth and Black and Latino males, who are three times less likely to earn a college degree than their white, upper-middle-class peers. In the last two years, college enrollment for Black and Latino males dropped 15% and 10%, respectively.
  2. Students are increasingly telling us they want jobs and careers where they can work for themselves. A recent study by Junior Achievement showed that 60% of America’s teens want to own their own businesses. Males are twice as likely as females to prefer entrepreneurial opportunities–they want hands-on learning experiences.
  3. Most disturbing of all, students and their families are rejecting higher education. Three decades ago, there was near-universal agreement that higher education was a ticket to opportunity. However, this is no longer the case. The number of students enrolled in postsecondary education has decreased every semester over the last three years, resulting in an enrollment drop of four million students. During this time, the percentage of high school students who believe college is worthwhile has slipped from 71% to 40%.

Understanding and addressing these and other trends is key to solving the K-12 crisis in schools across America. Take the male achievement gap. In his book Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling and What to Do About ItRichard Reeves delivers the message that too many males feel the educational system doesn’t fit their interests or needs–and this disconnect starts at an early age.

Schools need to ensure that all students feel they belong. Mentoring programs that utilize both peer and community mentors can go a long way toward making students feel understood. Increasing the number of male teachers at the K-12 level can also help boys feel more connected to the classroom. In addition, males are increasingly looking for a connection between what they learn and what they earn. This means we need to expose our young men (and women!) to careers in healthcare, teaching, and other sectors that are desperate for workers and pay a livable wage. CFES Brilliant Pathways is proactively implementing these recommendations through its academic and pre-professional mentorship programs, in which volunteer mentors from our corporate partners Bain, TransPerfect, and Colgate Palmolive regularly share their pathways to education and the workplace with students.

As a growing number of young people express a desire to become entrepreneurs, colleges including Seton Hall, the University of Delaware and the University of Vermont are offering competitions for high school students to pitch innovative plans to start businesses, make money, and improve their communities. Contestants not only learn the basics of entrepreneurship and idea generation, but have the opportunity to win cash prizes and scholarships. They also come to understand how higher education can boost their chances of entrepreneurial success.

In addition, students who see successful entrepreneurs who look like them are more inspired to pursue their own startups. This year, CFES launched a six-part webinar series targeting students called “Entrepreneurial Insights” that featured diverse entrepreneurs in aerospace, music, tech, and energy.

The diminishing public perception of the value of college is a serious problem that compels educators to shine a brighter spotlight on the real-world benefits of higher education. When postsecondary education is framed as a bridge to economic development, students, their families, and community members are far more likely to understand its economic value and support and encourage postsecondary education. Educators should also emphasize that the strong correlation between education and income also translates into economic development for our communities. Future-proof jobs–positions with growing employment prospects, strong compensation, and upward career mobility–almost always require some form of postsecondary education, as do fully two-thirds of all of America’s jobs.

Dramatically expanding economic development partnerships between schools and industry is another impactful way to help students and parents see the benefits of a college education. For example, Eximius Preparatory Academy, a public high school located in the South Bronx, one of America’s most impoverished neighborhoods, is leveraging a comprehensive peer-mentoring program and partnerships with TransPerfect and the University of Vermont to meet post-pandemic challenges head on. In its predominantly Black and Latino 2023 graduating class, 80% of whom live below the poverty line, 85 of 87 students will attend college in the fall. These students have collectively earned $3.5 million in scholarship funding for their first year of college. “We’ve created a college and career readiness culture and a sense of belonging that provides individual pathways to opportunity for all students,” said Eximius principal Jon Daly.

As we look for solutions to new challenges in the college and career readiness space, we can’t return to pre-Covid expectations and norms. We need strategies at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels that fit the needs of today’s students and educators. In the words of Chris Bishop, “I believe we can find a way to get back what we lost during the pandemic and take our kids, families, and teachers to heights they’ve never dreamed possible.”

To do so, stronger, more strategic partnerships are needed between colleges, businesses and K-12 students and educators. Covid didn’t create these new trendlines, but it did accelerate them. The pandemic was a wake-up call that can ultimately spark dramatic and positive change for those most in need.

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