Meeting the Demand for New Workers— Investing in Career Related Learning for High School Students

Investing in public education excellence is the path to thriving communities, a stable
economy, and successful students. Yet Pennsylvania’s underfunded and decentralized K-12
career and technical education (CTE) and dual enrollment (in college as well as high school),
and its Swiss cheese community colleges, undermine the Commonwealth’s economic
potential and the future of its students.
Reflecting these challenges, Pennsylvania ranks 42nd for the share of adults (25 and over)
with more than a high school education. Nearly half of Pennsylvania adults (42.5%) have
exactly a high school education but no education beyond that, the third-highest share of
any state.
In 2018, to begin addressing these obstacles to students’ success in college and career,
Pennsylvania’s State Board of Education set a goal of 60% of the population aged 25-64
having a postsecondary degree or industry-recognized certificate by 2025 — but the state is
only at 47%.2 Illinois set its 60% goal six years earlier and is now at 55.2%.3
Simply put,
1 Donna Cooper is the executive director of Children First ( and
Stephen Herzenberg is the executive director of Keystone Research Center (
Both they and their organizations are partners in the Pa School Works campaign
2 For the goal, see
18/Attainment%20Goal%20Memo.pdf. For the estimate of 47%, see
3 The estimate of 55.2% comes from slide 7 of a September 30, 2022, presentation by the Education
System Center, Northern Illinois University. The Lumina Foundation reports Illinois as at 52.2%; see See also
Pennsylvania lacks an intentional statewide career pathway system that ensures alignment
of all available resources to meet its 60% goal. That system is what the state should now
create by adopting the recommendations of this brief.
Fifty years ago, a high school education sufficed for jobs in the mills and mines and was
supplemented by on-the-job learning within a one-company career. That world is long
gone. Today, success for individuals, businesses, and state economies all hinge on getting
more than a high school education and getting more out of that education. These realities
and Pennsylvania’s current, low standing underscore the vital importance of strengthening
career pathways and dual enrollment to ensure more students gain skills in high school
that give them access to earning postsecondary education credits and/or skills credentials
before they graduate.
Ninety percent of all K-12 students in Pennsylvania attend public schools. That means that
1.7 million students’ futures are tied to the effectiveness of the infrastructure of public
education. Pennsylvania students perform above the national average on the National
Assessment of Educational Progress. On measures such as high school graduation rates
and student achievement, well-resourced schools across Pennsylvania far exceed the state
Pennsylvania’s achievement numbers, however, mask some of the largest opportunity and
achievement gaps in the country. While pockets of excellence, largely correlated with
pockets of adequate funding, tell us that Pennsylvania public schools and students succeed
with sufficient resources, our commonwealth, as a whole, is performing far below our
students’ potential due to widespread underfunding, which disproportionately harms our
most vulnerable children.
A key area in which state funding is inadequate, and the resources and programming
available to students varies widely by community and school district, is career and technical
education. Although Pennsylvania has many of the elements that could support a robust,
state-supported career pathway system that ensures a majority of high school students
can benefit from the proven impact of career-related learning, the share of students able
to take advantage of these promising approaches to learning is far too small, reaching less
than 7% of high school students.
Over the last 30 years, state statutes and the State Board of Education have codified some
key elements of a career pathway system, such as the state goal that 60% of adults 25-64
have a postsecondary degree or industry-recognized certificate by 2025. Moreover, in some
areas of the state, nascent infrastructure such as career pathways programs integrated
with CTE, and strong connections to the business community are in place (see box 1
below). Even so, students’ access to this advanced method of learning is a third of the 19%
average in our six surrounding states.
The Commonwealth needs to align the work of key state agencies and external partners to
build a career pathway system that leverages the capacity and resources of high schools,
regional technical training schools, private employers, community colleges, and
apprenticeship and training programs. Inside state government, at a minimum, the state
must create an office that has the authority to connect and build on the current expertise
in the Departments of Labor and Industry, Education, and Community and Economic
Pennsylvania can emulate effective practices that are now widely deployed in other states
and within four years provide at least 50% of all high school graduates the benefits of
career-related learning, meeting Governor Shapiro’s goal of “drastically increasing” CTE.
Achieving this goal and creating a sustainable CTE infrastructure for the 21st century would
require increasing state funds by $230 million, including:
• a $200 million increase in CTE funding.
• an $11 million annual increase in funding for equipment to career and technical
centers (CTCs) and other CTE programs.
• funding for a statewide intermediary like the Education Systems Center at Northern
Illinois University, which has supported successful state career-related learning and
dual enrollment strategies in Illinois for the past 11 years.
• $10 million for competitive grants to increase dual enrollment.
• $1 million to allow $1,000 per student for the start-up costs associated with
increasing high school pre-apprenticeship enrollment annually.
• $8 million for direct subsidies or tax credits to strengthen business-led and
business- and labor-led sector partnerships that can partner with CTE, ensuring that
more high school pre-apprenticeships and other career pathways connect with
living-wage careers and meet employers’ skill needs as well as increasing postsecondary enrollment.