Wayfinders: Building a New Normal for Young People

An academic year like no other has ended. As attention turns to what lies ahead, especially for young people exploring different educational and career pathways, there’s a growing sense of responsibility to do more than just help young people catch up. The financial and health impacts of the pandemic, along with increased attention to and activism around racial injustice, have catalyzed interest in going well beyond a restoration of life as we knew it, pre-pandemic. This is our moment to reimagine how we build systems and support designed to meet the needs of more young people in America — and we can start by listening to young people, and centering their voices as part of building more equitable pathways for them.  

In this month’s Wayfinders:

Building Meaningful Relationships 

What young people know and who they know directly impacts their ability to achieve the futures they envision for themselves. Meaningful relationships, also known as social capital, can result in improved grades in the short-term and increased internship and job opportunities in the long-term. Relationships with the right people can also help young people consider new possibilities and reconsider what it means to be the right fit for a particular vocation or career. While many young people have supportive families, some do not have access to nurturing relationships to support their development outside of the home. As Wayfinders who help young people navigate their education and career pathways, it’s up to us to ensure all young people can experience the benefits of strong and caring relationships.

The Clayton Christensen Institute recently released a new playbook on how K12, postsecondary and other education leaders can take a systematic approach to equitably fostering positive and diverse relationships across their schools and programs. For Allan Golston, President of U.S. Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, moving from chance encounters to intentional relationship building is critical to furthering young people’s journeys. Read more of his thoughts on why all students deserve enriching and authentic relationships here.

Collaborating on Pandemic Recovery

Simply doing more of what we did before the pandemic will not be enough to eliminate the new and existing barriers some young people face in their education and career pathways. With an unprecedented amount of federal resources on the way, K12 districts have a unique opportunity to address the inequities that keep too many young people from reaching postsecondary success. While many different ideas for how to direct these new resources have emerged, we also need to stay focused on the big picture; we can work together like never before to drive significant change in our education system. 

Local districts can provide more young people with the support they need by strengthening partnerships with higher education leaders. Expanded access to dual enrollment programs and other early college learning experiences, as well as personalized coaching models, are just two examples of effective cross-sector collaboration with proven outcomes. With coordinated action, a future where more young people have the support and opportunities they need to achieve the lives they envision for themselves is within reach. From Sara Allan, Director of Education Pathways at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Four Ways K-12 and Higher Education Can Collaborate on Pandemic Recovery.

What is College Worth?

Postsecondary education offers young people the opportunity for greater economic mobility than they would otherwise be able to attain with just a high school degree; it can mean gaining access to jobs with greater career potential and higher salaries. However, young people don’t experience the potential benefits of postsecondary education equally — and views on the value of advanced educational opportunities vary widely among young people and adults alike, especially given the financial barriers young people often encounter when seeking out educational options. At a time when some young people are feeling greater uncertainty about their futures, believing that the economic return on college is worth it will be even more critical to keeping them on a pathway to postsecondary completion. But are postsecondary education systems doing enough to deliver equitable value for all young people? 

The Postsecondary Value Commission, a group of 30 diverse leaders brought together by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, recently released its report examining this question and others, such as how to measure the value of postsecondary education. Beyond the findings, it offers an action plan for putting young people on the path to postsecondary success and improving value for Black and Latino young people and young people from households with lower incomes. Scaling academic pathways, focusing financial resources on students and institutions with the greatest need, and creating stronger connections between educational institutions and employers are just a few of the ways we can reimagine our postsecondary systems as an important tool for creating more equitable futures. To learn more, access the full report here.

Equitable Futures National Youth Poll: New Research Brief 

The Equitable Futures National Youth Poll, which launched in August 2020, has shown rising levels of uncertainty among Black and Latino young people and young people experiencing poverty and has also demonstrated their resilience and the optimism they feel about their futures. Earlier findings highlighted how young people were feeling about their educational and career plans during the pandemic; we also released a special brief highlighting the attention young people were paying to racial justice issues.  

Our most recent brief from the Equitable Futures National Youth Poll highlights how young people are feeling about their futures and career pathways as they shoulder increased financial and household responsibilities throughout the pandemic. The first set of insights and findings from Equitable Futures research are captured in our Striving to Thriving report, released in September 2020, and vividly illustrated the sense of agency Black and Latino young people and young people experiencing poverty feel about creating their future lives, and the different pathways they were exploring. Now, the latest results from the National Youth Poll are showing that young people are still actively pursuing educational and employment opportunities, despite feeling greater levels of uncertainty about their specific educational or career pathways. For people who work in the fields of helping young people succeed, the findings call for renewed energy and creativity–especially during extended crises like the pandemic–in how we support young people along their education and career pathways to help them achieve their life goals.

With the final wave of the poll now completed, what has surfaced is an overall picture of young people emerging from a year of loss and challenge with their aspirations and dreams for their future lives intact. You can review the latest Equitable Futures research findings here; you can also find the briefing memo from the research firm that conducted the polling here.

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