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Finding Common Purpose

To what end? That’s the question I posed back in March when I launched the blog Finding Common Purpose. It’s a question I continue to pose to myself and to the tens of thousands of nonprofit organizations, myriad government programs at the federal, state, county, and municipal levels, thousands of foundations, millions of individual donors and volunteers, and hundreds of different school models—what I call the Nonprofit Industrial Complex. I pose the question because, frankly, our results over the last sixty years stink, and its time we think about why and take action to change them. 

Answering the To What End? question does not have to be as difficult as it may seem, especially if we’re clear on what success looks like. I’ve been defining it this way in my posts: Success in the United States today means getting on, and staying on, a lifelong pathway that begins with a healthy birth and continues through all the stages of life, from entering school ready to learn and receiving a quality education that leads to a well-paying job, to ultimately being able to enjoy a healthy and secure aging.

To dig deeper, I began a series of consecutive blog posts after speaking on a panel about jobs. I wondered just who this economy is working for, and decided to dig deeper and focus on one part of the pathway as a way to and see what I might learn about the pathway concept more generally. The part I chose is from high school to post-secondary education or some practical training that leads to a good-paying job. I must admit that I went in with the assumption that it is completely broken, that we’re failing to provide what’s needed along the pathway, and that we especially fail because there are few if any deliberate “handoffs” from one point to another. Those are the places where people are most vulnerable to “falling between the cracks”—which means falling off the pathway and potentially even descending into poverty. 

For this series of posts, I spoke to different people working on different parts of the pathway. And unfortunately, my assumption proved true at every turn. Here’s what I learned from each of these interviews, beginning with an audience member at that panel discussion whose story really prompted this deeper dive.

A Student: Kevin Dowling 

Kevin’s story is classic: he went from high school to college, but was unable to stay on the pathway. He ended up dropping out before his post-secondary education could help him move along to a good-paying job. His story exemplifies just how important handoffs are along the pathway; it’s at those handoff points that the system largely failed him. It began with his high school guidance counselors, who “handed him off” to college without any real career guidance; their objective was to add a “1” to the numbers going on to college from his high school. Then, when Kevin got to college, he shared, “All the teachers were always pushing us to get a job now, while we’re in school.” Others did that: “They could go to school, get all the classes done, and work at the same time, but my brain just doesn’t work like that. I saw everyone around me getting good jobs and performing well, and instead of empowering me it brought me down.” 

But no one at Kevin’s college paid any attention to ensuring that a transition into the world of work was smooth or even possible for him. There was no conscious handoff. In my post about Kevin, I asked: Was he set up for failure?

High school: Patrick Rametti, director of College Completion at Uncommon Schools 

I learned just how important it is that students be prepared to succeed when they move on to institutions of higher education. Most schools, though, just measure and tout their high school graduation and college acceptance rates. That’s meaningless: it tells us very little, if anything, about whether success is in the future for those kids. As Patrick put it, “We can advocate for kids and we can believe that kids deserve to go to college and should go to college and complete college, but if they don’t actually have the academic skills to do it, then we’re putting the cart before the horse.” 

We ought to be measuring instead whether high school students are prepared for that next step along the pathway—specifically, to succeed in college or begin some sort of technical training.

Patrick shined a light on our focus on high school graduation “factories,” a problem that became ever more real when I moved on to post-secondary education—especially considering all the research that shows a post-secondary degree is pretty much essential for getting a good-paying job in today’s economy.

Post-secondary: Dana Dunn, provost and executive vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro

The most striking thing I learned about that “factory” focus and the students who graduate high school and move on to college is in the data: our public post-secondary institutions, where most kids go, are sleeping at the switch. Some 38% of undergraduates are at public two-year colleges, and of the remaining 62%, three-fourths attend four-year public colleges and universities. And yet only 11% of students from the lowest-income quartile graduate within six years—and 40% never finish! Dana made me aware of the tremendously high levels of basic needs insecurity among students on two- and four-year campuses poses a horrible choice for students who have to decide between continuing their studies and eating or having a roof over their heads. But even those who don’t have to make that choice have trouble. Dana put her finger on part of the reason. “Those from low-income backgrounds are less likely to have family members and friends and others for whom the university experience is something familiar,” she explained. “It may be something, in fact, quite alien. Learning how to navigate that and how to thrive in such an environment is not something that’s automatic. It takes a lot of support and guidance for students to be able to thrive in an environment that they had far less exposure to.”

With such low graduation rates and immense barriers, imagine if we didn’t impose a success factor based on a false premise—that a four-year college degree is genuinely needed to be able to do a lot of jobs that require that degree just to be considered for employment. Speaking to an employer, I came to realize that a rethinking about real job requirements could mean high school graduates are doing things after high school that are more suited to their interests—alternatives to college that can still lead to a good-paying job—without all the pressures Dana described.

Employer: Mike Scannell of State Street Bank 

Mike reinforced that employers today have very little connection to educational institutions—but if they did, it could be a win-win for everyone. As Mike stated, describing an internship program that wasn’t working as well as it could, “We were really missing an opportunity. Those four-year college grads we invested time and resources in might stay only six or nine months. So we really started to think about this continuum of work from internships right through full-time employment. It drove us to be much more intentional about recruiting interns with a purpose beyond summer jobs.”

Mike encouraged his company to think about whether a college degree is really necessary for the actual jobs State Street needs to fill—and thinks other employers should do the same. “I don’t think employers have really challenged themselves to think differently”, Mike says. “The traditional pipelines of entry-level talent may not be working. It’s worth taking a fresh look and adopting new perspective on the real requirements for an entry-level position. Does a position truly require a four-year degree? A certain GPA?”

My discussion with Mike led me to talk to someone who has been empowering people without college degrees and helping them get some very good jobs.

Technical training: David Delmar Senties, founder and executive director of Resilient Coders

David was the ideal person with whom to continue this discussion. He’s the founder and executive director of Boston-based Resilient Coders, which describes itself as “training people of color for high-growth careers as software engineers, and connecting them with jobs.” These jobs are at a host of companies, beginning at nearly six-figure salaries. David corroborated something that’s pretty obvious even from cursory observation: race and class are huge obstacles to success at every point along the school-to-work part of the pathway, in a sort of vicious circle. Young people from low-income families, especially if they are black or brown, have greater difficulties getting into college, staying there, and thus getting the jobs that require that degree. David described Resilient Coders as a way to get past the “gatekeeper to wealth” that college has come to represent to the people in his program. They can’t “break into this sort of college-input workforce pipeline, and too many companies out there are asking for college degrees.”  

This puts an even greater importance on a focus on training programs, technical community colleges, and employers’ willingness to consider hiring people without college degrees.  

There is no doubt these conversations solidified that this part of the pathway is broken. A conversation I had with Bob Schwartz put it all together for me. He’s a professor emeritus of Practice in Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, author of numerous articles about education and work, and founder of Pathways to Prosperity. 

 “College is the means and career is the end,” Bob told me, but instead “we’ve behaved for so long as if college was an end in itself. But obviously, as the economy has changed, we just become increasingly aware that the consequences of not having any formalized, serious system to support this transition—particularly from the end of compulsory schooling into the workplace—just puts kids at an enormous disadvantage and exacerbates the social class disparities and increasing inequality in society.”

To be sure, there are bright “spots” along the pathway—often in programs that show great promise, like the example of Resilient Coders. But without exception, they are doing so in an overall Nonprofit Industrial Complex that accepts mediocrity, is structured in ways that often seem geared toward maintaining the status quo and keeping themselves in “business,” and seems to ignore the forest for the trees.

We’re not going to get solve the problems described here until handoffs are conscious and coordinated. Let’s blow up the silos, stop focusing on the individual feel-good stories of this or that “disadvantaged” kid from a low-income family succeeding in some program, and get busy focusing not just on the classic “learning for learning’s sake” but also on what should be the real and obvious result of education: a good paying job!

I’ve asked many of my interviewees, including those discussed above, to choose a song to end my blog posts. This time, I get to choose. The title of Pink Floyd’s classic seems to exemplify what the Nonprofit Industrial Complex is doing routinely, each and every day: just putting “Another Brick in the Wall.” 

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To read more about the Pathways to Prosperity project and the robust research undergirding its recommendations, click here.

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