The following was originally published by Newswise.

BURLINGTON, Vt. — As the world of education emerges from a disruptive pandemic, it faces a new set of challenging trends that are having uneven effects on American students, according to speakers at a two-day conference focused on helping underserved students thrive in higher education and discover rewarding careers.

In particular, students are viewing post-secondary education more warily, opting for more hands-on or entrepreneurial opportunities that are likely to generate more immediate income rather than accumulating college debt, educators told participants at CFES-Brilliant Pathways’ annual conference, “Accelerating Change: New Frontiers in College and Career Readiness.”

“This is a time of structural shift, and we need to prepare students for the challenges these changes will certainly bring,” said Tara Smith, chief operating officer of CFES.

CFES-Brilliant Pathways helps underserved students negotiate the obstacles that can stand in the way of college, while helping them develop skills that will be useful both in school and in life. This year’s conference was attended by 280 school, nonprofit and business representatives from 14 states.

And while the changes are daunting, they also represent opportunities to try new solutions and amp up innovative programs that have proved their worth, including a successful connection between the University of Vermont and high schools in the Bronx, which over the past 20 years has sent 450 inner city students to UVM.

“CFES is transforming the world of education state by state, city by city and child by child,” said Tiffany Herman, who grew up in Harlem and attended UVM. “It transformed the lives of black and brown people in my school.”

Reaching these populations is important because surveys have shown increasing distrust of post-secondary education, which in many cases has left students with more debt than opportunities. “Even pre-Covid there was a growing feeling that college has failed a lot of people,” said Ayden Carpenter, a communications/community and international development major at UVM, who is also a CFES mentor.

This has led to a spike in interest in entrepreneurism, as 60% of high school students have expressed a desire to be their own boss. “As we look at these new challenges, one of the things that we’ve seen is that so many young people want to run their own businesses,” said Rick Dalton, president and CEO of CFES.

In response to these trends, CFES has helped students leverage scholarship money, and partnered with the University of Vermont in creating the Vermont Pitch Challenge, a Shark Tank-like competition among high school students around the world for business and humanitarian ideas. Winners receive cash and, for the grand prize winner, a full scholarship to the UVM.

More challenging is the disappearance of male students from college classrooms, particularly in the financially challenged communities that are the heart of CFES’ mission of expanding career opportunities. Fifty years ago, males greatly outnumbered females in college, but today, 60% of the people earning a college degree are female, said Josh Ott, head of media for the cultural website The Shade Room.

Ott said reversing this trend depends largely on personal mentoring and networking, key elements of the CFES approach, including a new program Young Men of Talent, which aims to ensure that Black and Latino males nationwide can attend and graduate from college prepared to enter the workforce.

Colleges, too, are changing in order to ease financial burdens that can come with a degree — schools such as UVM and Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, for example, are now offering free tuition to students from families earning less than $75,000.

Dalton urged educators to embrace these challenges and innovations. “Go back to your schools and share with your peers what you’ve taken out of this conference,” he said. “Because change is coming at us at a speed we’ve never seen before.”


CFES Brilliant Pathways is a global leader in helping K-12 underserved students from rural and urban communities become college and career ready, giving students an opportunity to forge their own route to a bright future. For 32 years, CFES has worked closely with schools, colleges and businesses in urban and rural areas to help students become college and career ready through mentoring and by equipping them with the EssentialSkills that include perseverance, agility, goal setting, networking, teamwork and leadership.