March 2, 2023
Do parents and students believe that learning and opportunity can be found outside of high school and college classrooms? We recently conducted six virtual focus groups in Indiana with high school students and parents to find out.
In partnership with the FDR Group, a nonpartisan public opinion research firm, and Ascend Indiana, one of our grantees through the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship (PAYA), we designed the focus groups to explore participants’ experiences, concerns, and hopes about life after high school. The ultimate goal of listening to these students and parents is to help local and state-level organizations in Indiana make informed decisions about designing youth apprenticeship programs and developing messaging to promote them.
For those not familiar with the term, youth apprenticeship is a structured form of work-based learning that allows students to complete high school, start their postsecondary education at no cost, get paid work experience alongside a mentor, and start along a path that broadens their options for the future. Youth apprenticeship can be a cost-effective talent strategy for employers, as apprentices build skills to meet evolving business needs and grow into valued contributors to their employers’ bottom line.
Through our conversations, we walked away with three findings and five recommendations for leaders working to advance youth apprenticeship in Indiana and across the US.
Finding 1: The pendulum seems to be swinging away from “college for all”
Students and parents reported seeing a shift away from the notion that a four-year college degree is the best or only path to a well-paying, meaningful career. For example, parents who still have student loans shared that their outstanding debt has made them question whether the degree was worth it and expressed concern about their own children having to take on debt for college. Others noted that employers' attitudes also seem to be shifting. As one parent explained, “It’s good that employers are starting to recognize that hands-on experience, life experience, is also valuable. That’s something different that I’ve seen in recent years.’’
Students, for their part, expressed an openness to different postsecondary options and a desire for opportunities beyond academic classrooms. They were excited about pathways that offered something new while not closing the door to college. As one student explained, “I think overall, most students lean towards the college path because the trade path has only really been pushed heavily in the last couple years. Because it used to be if you didn’t do well in school, you went to the trades…but that’s not necessarily the case anymore. Some of the smartest people I know are going to off-campus programs to do welding and auto body repair. It’s definitely still more towards college over workforce, but the trades path is getting more popular.”
Overall, participants’ feedback suggests that stigma around paths other than a four-year college degree is decreasing, but hasn’t gone away entirely. Parents in some communities acknowledged feeling competitive pressure around where their children enroll in college, while others lamented that kids aren’t celebrated as much if they decide to go with a different route. As one parent shared, “There’s always the ‘wall’ of all the kids and what colleges they were accepted to, not so much those going to trade school or the military or the jobs that they’ve landed...Those things aren’t given the same amount of praise or even attention.’’
Finding 2: Students and parents react positively to youth apprenticeship–once they learn what it is
Discussions with participants revealed that there is still a learning curve on what youth apprenticeships are and the value they can offer students. Most participants had a vague picture of apprenticeship as workplace mentorship or “hands-on learning with a master of that specific field.” They weren’t aware that apprenticeship is a structured program available in a wide range of occupations and industries, that it includes both classroom learning and working for pay, and that it is not merely job shadowing. But when told about the key components of youth apprenticeships, parents and students expressed positive views. Specifically, students and parents liked that youth apprenticeships offer the opportunity to earn money while in high school, gain skills that employers value, earn free college credit, and have hands-on learning experiences that provide a break from pure academics.
Youth apprenticeship can keep students engaged in school at a time when many of them are becoming bored with the academic routine, and when some may feel financial pressure to support themselves and their families financially. As one student said, “If we are all honest, we really don’t want to go to school, we really don’t want to be in there. My selling point would be you get out of school and you get paid. On top of all that, you get experience.”
Participants were also enthusiastic about some of the less tangible benefits of apprenticeship. Parents and students liked that these programs offer students a way to explore what they do and do not like. For example, one parent shared that “one of the best things about apprenticeships is [that] they’ll “give kids an opportunity to figure out maybe what they don’t want to do early on….before they invest a whole lot of time and a lot of money. Or their parents do. I know it took me forever to pay off my student debt.” Parents also still believe and value the power of ‘getting your foot in the door’ and the opportunity to network and make connections– both of which are key benefits of youth apprenticeship programs.
Finding 3: Parents and students still have questions about apprenticeship's value and the level of commitment required
Once parents and students had a common understanding of youth apprenticeship programs, some questions and concerns popped up. These inquiries mostly centered around the value-add to a student's future academic and career goals, and the level of commitment required.
For example, parents raised questions about the college courses students take as part of their apprenticeship and whether these courses would be widely accepted at a variety of colleges, regardless of whether they apply to a local college, or one further away. They also wondered about the industry certifications and credentials earned through the apprenticeship and whether they would be transferable between employers.
If a student chooses a pathway and decides it’s not for them, can they change or are they stuck with it? Variations on this question and similar themes of commitment came up frequently in the focus groups. One participant said, “I would just be concerned with the commitment, especially [if] it's going to be in sophomore or junior year, are they free to change their mind on where they’re going or what avenue that they want to pursue…that they are able to do that. If they go into mechanics and they realize, ‘I like cars, but that’s not for me,’ are they still committed for that whole time?”
What do these findings mean for designing and promoting youth apprenticeship?
These focus groups suggest that youth apprenticeship leaders have an opportunity to capitalize on the changing priorities of parents and students--so long as they commit to building high- quality programs that expand students’ educational and career prospects, and communicate the benefits that students and parents care about. The focus group findings give youth apprenticeship practitioners and policymakers several guideposts for taking advantage of this opportunity.
Include transferable college credit as part of your youth apprenticeship program
When it comes to program design, it’s clear that parents and students want apprenticeships that are connected to college, so it's important to create youth apprenticeship programs that include transferable postsecondary coursework as part of apprentices’ related technical instruction. In Indiana, several intermediary organizations are working to build portable youth apprenticeship programs that include postsecondary credit that transfers to other higher education institutions and leads to a degree. If an apprenticeship is designed to include college credit, then it is easy to allay worries that a student must choose between college and career. And as we learned, the opportunity to earn free postsecondary credit through youth apprenticeship is a big selling point for parents, as many are still paying off their own student loans and don't want to see their children take on similar debt. This is an area where state-level policy can play an important role. Many states will pay for high school students to receive college-level credit through dual enrollment programs, and this can be an effective way for youth apprenticeship programs to decrease costs. Other policy options for covering apprentices’ college costs include student financial aid, reimbursement systems, and tuition waivers.
Prepare students to be employable across an industry
Well-designed youth apprenticeships prepare students to be employable across an industry and not just at a single employer. Practitioners must make sure they are designing their apprenticeships with this goal in mind. That means engaging multiple employers to learn what skills and experiences are common across the industry. And it requires asking employers which credentials they care about when it comes to hiring. Doing so ensures youth apprenticeships expand students’ career opportunities, rather than limiting them. Making sure that youth apprenticeships are career-oriented and are guided by industry input is a guiding principle for Indiana's youth apprenticeships.
Proactively address commitment concerns
Teenagers are known to change their minds. Youth apprenticeship programs should be prepared to explain how it would be handled if students find they don’t like or aren’t suited to the occupation or industry they selected for their apprenticeship. It's also crucial to address concerns that apprenticeships cause students to commit too early to one field and lose out on the breadth of a conventional academic pathway, by designing programs that prepare apprentices to succeed in a specific occupation, but also to grow into other roles across an industry over time. But practitioners also have an opportunity to try and shift mindsets around breadth and depth. What is broad about spending all your time in a classroom setting? And what is narrow about pairing academic learning with hands-on learning in a workplace? Apprenticeships, because they combine theory and practice, can provide an education that is both broad and deep. Practitioners should consider using this framing with parents and students, and prioritizing it in their design efforts.
Present youth apprenticeship as a choice to be proud of
While focus group participants expressed more openness to different pathways after high school, many still noted that college is the most prestigious option. To start changing this mindset, emphasize the mastery in a professional trade that results from successful completion of an apprenticeship. Apprenticeship program leaders should help high school partners celebrate their youth apprentices just as they would celebrate college acceptances. Avoid messages that convey apprenticeship is for less ambitious students and instead emphasize that apprenticeship is a good choice for any student.
Communicate the benefits students gain by getting to experience real workplaces
Thanks to the focus groups, we know that students get excited about the opportunity learn hands-on outside of the classroom. Parents realize the value in ‘getting your foot in the door’ and that apprenticeships allow students to begin building their professional networks early. Both students and parents like that apprenticeship gives students time to figure out what their interests and talents are—and to rule out what doesn’t suit them. And virtually everyone likes the idea of getting paid and earning free college credits while still in high school. Apprenticeship programs should highlight these benefits and features when messaging to these audiences.
Overall, it's clear that students and their parents are interested and open to apprenticeships, but there is still work to be done to continue advocating for and framing these programs. The team at Ascend Indiana is building on this momentum through a statewide Community of Practice, made up of industry, government, education, and intermediaries and serves as an essential feedback loop between local apprenticeship programs and statewide policymakers. The findings from these focus groups will help the Community of Practice accelerate the growth of quality youth apprenticeship in Indiana. With parents and students becoming more open to different postsecondary options, the time is right for youth apprenticeship practitioners across the country to follow Indiana's lead and reach out to an audience that is more receptive than it has been in years to new, high-quality postsecondary opportunities like youth apprenticeship.
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