College Degree Should Not Be Lifetime Barricade to a Good-paying Job

Photo by Metro Creative

The ecosystem from the classroom to the workforce is in desperate need of investment and accountability. I’ve seen career and technical education (CTE) programs prepare students for high demand careers, but once young adults develop the real-world skills, there is no tangible bridge to continue to engage their passions via a first or second internship to build a career pathway.

Employers, outside organizations, schools and legislative leaders all have a crucial role to play if we are to dismantle the economic inequality chasm that begins in high school and further deepens throughout a person’s lifetime earnings. Too many brilliant young adults without college degrees remain stagnant, often job-hopping from one low-wage job to the next because society refuses to develop opportunities that could result in high-demand, high-skill and high-wage occupations.

Programs like IBM’s earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs, where the company moves employees without college degrees up the economic ladder, and recent investments like the Walton Family Foundation’s Catalyze Challenge to help expand career-connected learning are essential to reimagine the education to workforce ecosystem. Investing in innovative organizations that are transforming the approaches and platforms that help students navigate into meaningful careers and to move beyond the traditional construct of study-then-work to a study-and-work approach provides more opportunity to connect young adults to rewarding jobs.

Read the full op-ed at

Crowder College Receives Grant to Help Students Learn to Code as Early as Middle School

NEOSHO, Mo. — A new higher Ed project will focus efforts to help students connect with high tech careers. Crowder College has a big grant to work with students interested in digital careers.

“Neosho, Joplin, Webb City. Many of the junior high and middle schools were written into this grant,” said Chett Daniel, Crowder Research & Innovation.

Just a few of the schools that could see a new partnership building interest in digital careers. Crowder College won a $450,000 grant to look for innovative ways to grow career and technical education for local students.

“Develop that digital talent to allow them to participate in work that exists,” said Daniel.

The project would start as young as middle school – developing programs to encourage future job seekers.

Read the full article on

Crowder College Nets Grant for Software Development Pilot Program

NEOSHO, Mo. — Crowder College is one of 16 nationwide recipients of a Catalyze Challenge Grant, which will provide $450,000 to pilot software development learning opportunities at two area regional career and technical education centers.

Crowder will coordinate the pilot project through two high school career and technical education centers. The grant will also fund the creation of competitive youth coding leagues in multiple middle schools and junior high schools in partnership with Codefi, a Cape Girardeau-based company. 

Codefi partners with private and public groups to train digital workers and entrepreneurs, build and attract software-focused companies, and create community spaces in rural communities.

Read the press release in The Joplin Globe.

Grants Galore for Roscoe Program

Collegiate Edu-Nation, a network aimed at increasing opportunities for rural Texas to innovate in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), recently secured two monetary awards to expand their services.

First, CEN was named one of 15 winners of the inaugural Catalyze Challenge, which seeks to find innovative solutions for education moving forward.

The program awards up to $500,000 to winners who “design, pilot, and expand innovative solutions that support students in accessing economic opportunity through career-integrated learning,” according to its website,

The Roscoe-based network is led by former Roscoe Collegiate Superintendent Kim Alexander (CEO) and Roscoe High agriculture teacher Jacob Tiemann (president).

Collegiate Edu-Nation, the foundation said, focuses on collaboration and partnership, innovation, sustainable impact, integrity, and equity.

Read the full article in Abilene Reporter News.

Fueled by Grants, States Bet Innovative Career Training Programs Will Lure Disengaged Youth Back to School After COVID — Starting in Middle School

Could student-run vertical farms — hyper-efficient, clean facilities where produce grows up on racks, instead of out across fields — help stabilize small cities in northwest Tennessee?

Could apprenticeships with local chefs keep disaffected Delaware teens in high school and reopen the state’s restaurants, the source of one-tenth of its jobs?

What if a paycheck earned during high school, and the promise of a better one after attaining a credential in a field where good jobs are going begging, motivates a young person who left school during COVID-19 to come back?

With tectonic shifts in the U.S. labor market, a K-12 establishment desperate to re-engage disaffected students and a proven record of pre-pandemic success stories, career and technical education is having a moment.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has announced $25 million in new grants in two states and nine cities — the latest in a series of initiatives by private donors and state and civic leaders — to boost promising career-pathway programs at a time when they are particularly suited to addressing educational inequities widened by COVID.

With the aim of maximizing the impact of their donations, a number of other philanthropies are collaborating with Bloomberg. Last week, the Walton Family Foundation announced $20 million in grants to nonprofits engaged in career development efforts, including a competitive grant program coordinated by the nonprofit American Student Assistance. Other Walton grantees include the think tank New America’s Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship which, among other things, uses data to identify promising initiatives, and Urban Alliance, which aims to increase employer participation in career preparation.

Read the full article from The 74.

Newark Education Organization Recognized for Connecting Students to Career Pathways

Photo Credit: Newark Opportunity Youth Network

NEWARK, NJ — Newark-based education organization Trio New College Network was recognized this month for its efforts to put students on track towards landing successful careers. 

The network, which is made up of city-based education institutions, Gateway U Hybrid CollegeLEAD Charter School and Great Oaks Legacy Charter School, will be in receipt of grant funding to leverage career-connected learning programs. The funding comes as part of the Catalyze Challenge, which provides grants to organizations and institutions that support initiatives and curriculum put in place at middle and high schools, and programs supporting the transition to early college coursework. 

This year, Trio New College Network was one of 15 winners from across the country to receive part of $4 million available in grant monies and will pilot, launch and scale solutions designed for the leaders of tomorrow’s workforce. 

“Trio New College Network shares our mission of clearing barriers and creating pathways to success for young people,” said Robert Clark, CEO of Newark Opportunity Youth Network (NOYN). LEAD Charter School serves as an extension of NOYN to support Newark’s underserved youth. “By bridging education and workforce development, we hope to see more young people reach their potential and further strengthen Newark’s future.”

Read the full article from TAP Into Newark.

Press Release: Inaugural Catalyze Challenge Winners to Transform Journey from Classroom to Career

For Immediate Release
Thursday, November 4th

Media Contacts:

SAN FRANCISCO, NOVEMBER 4, 2021 – In an effort to level the playing field for all students and catapult young people into meaningful careers, the Catalyze Challenge, co-sponsored by American Student Assistance, Arnold Ventures, Charter School Growth Fund and the Walton Family Foundation has awarded over $4M to accelerate bold career-connected learning solutions aimed at helping students better access economic opportunity after leaving school.  

Fifteen winners — community organizations, entrepreneurs, and cross-sector partnerships from across the country — will pilot, launch and scale solutions designed for the leaders of tomorrow’s workforce. 

“Being a thriving, productive and joyful member of society means having the agency to meaningfully shape one’s own future and the future of our communities. There’s never been a more opportune moment to equip young people with the skills and mindsets to drive change for themselves and our country,” said Romy Drucker, Education Program Interim Director at the Walton Family Foundation.

Over recent decades, a lack of affordable higher education combined with limited career exploration, experiential and navigation opportunities have meant that many students don’t have the tools to fulfill their career potential. Meanwhile, a skilled workforce shortage, changing labor market demands, and increased employee desire for meaningful and sustainable career paths mean employers need alternatives to traditional hiring paths to keep up and maintain leadership in today’s economy. 

The Catalyze Challenge was created to meet this moment, with grants funding inventive ideas for career-connected learning at middle and high schools and programs supporting the transition to early college coursework.

All winners have an explicit focus on reaching historically underserved students, including students of color, those living in low-income and/or rural communities, and students who are the first in their families to go to college. Selected solution themes include: 

  • Unlocking potential in the rural heartland: Through school partnerships and innovative initiatives where students learn technical and soft skills, solutions aim to revitalize local economies and set young people up for life-long career success.
  • Encouraging the entrepreneurial spirit in young people: From students of color getting work experience doing web development and social media marketing for mission-driven organizations to work-based learning programs with partners like the New York Department of Education, AT&T, and Cisco that enable young people to launch small businesses, the solutions offer real skills and real paychecks. 
  • Digital credentialing for 21st century skills: A unique pilot program for students to earn credentials in “soft skills” such as creative problem solving and critical thinking, making their proficiency visible to colleges and employers for the first time. The digital credentials and college credit for the learning and demonstration of soft skills do not yet exist and could be a gamechanger for young people.

“We’re thrilled to support these bold ideas that integrate career education for all students. Building in career exploration and experimentation, as early as middle grades, as well as post-secondary education planning support, is a no-brainer when it comes to making sure every student has what they need to succeed,” said Annabel Cellini, Chief Strategy Officer of American Student Assistance. “Everyone benefits when young people leave school ready to enter the workforce: students have the skills and knowledge to be successful in their careers, schools make progress against the metrics they care about, employers build stronger talent pipelines, and community economies become more resilient.”

The complete list of winning organizations (bolded) and their solutions:

Aecern – At the Cutting Edge of Emerging Career Fields (Florida) 

Aecern’s At the Cutting Edge program addresses urgent challenges by engaging students in grades 6 and up in emerging technologies and associated careers while working on solutions to authentic problems facing professionals in these fields.

BUILD – BUILDing Generation Entrepreneur through Digital A (California)

BUILD supports students from 8th through 12th grade across the nation in building businesses and confidence to be successful with those businesses through an entrepreneurship program that provides mentors and training to set students up for success.

Building 21 – Launchpad (Pennsylvania)

Launchpad is a new initiative from Building 21 that will directly connect young people to living-wage paying jobs that offer upwardly mobile career opportunities while providing them with the credentials, skills, mindsets and experience to thrive in these roles. 

CodeSpeak Labs – The Next Step (California)

The Next Step is a creative agency of BIPOC high school students from underserved communities in California and New York working with professional mentors from CodeSpeak Labs. The agency gives students real-world professional experience doing web development and social media marketing for mission-driven organizations. 

Collegiate Academies – Next Level NOLA: Bridging High School and Beyond (Louisiana)

Collegiate Academies’ Next Level NOLA initiative provides transformative, personalized support to graduating seniors in New Orleans that counters the obstacles students traditionally face in their postsecondary pursuits. 

Collegiate EduNation – Collegiate Edu-Nation Rural HOPE Project (Texas)

Collegiate Edu-Nation is a Texas-based network that facilitates the transformation of rural student outcomes and rural workforce development by partnering with local school, community and business leaders to establish and support regionally relevant education systems. 

Crowder College – Digital Pathways in the Rural Heartland (Missouri)

With their Digital Pathways in the Rural Heartland initiative, Crowder College and Codefi have partnered to reshape the narrative about career opportunities in rural America from one centered on manufacturing and agriculture to one that includes a flourishing digital workforce. 

Cultivate – Cultivate Pathways (Nationwide)

Cultívate Pathways aims to reduce the gap in educational equity that exists for English language learners. This nationwide program provides paid work-based learning experiences to English learner students in grades 11th through college, delivering credentials that will lead to higher pay in one year.

Education Design Lab – Propel Polk! Credentialing 21st Century Skills (Florida)

Education Design Lab is making students more competitive applicants for colleges and employers by creating credentialed programs for soft skills. 

Hack the Hood – Designing a High School to Tech Career Pathway

Hack the Hood uplifts early career youth and communities of color through tech skill-building programs grounded in justice. They also provide career navigation support that ensures economic mobility. 

nXu – Career Exploration: Purpose & Identity Development (Nationwide)

Through nXu’s curriculum, students engage in career exploration through the lens of purpose and identity while cultivating their social and emotional learning skills – and in doing so, the curriculum encourages greater academic engagement, fosters a sense of belonging among students and instills confidence in students to navigate their professional and academic journeys. 

Propel America – Accelerate America (Louisiana)

Propel America’s Accelerate America initiative allows high school graduates to access affordable and quick pathways to a living-wage job and college credits in collaboration with AccelerateU at National Louis University. 

Rural Community Alliance – Just and Thriving Rural & Remote Futures (Arkansas)

Seeing the trend of work-from-home opportunities increasing throughout the US, Rural Community Alliance’s Just and Thriving Remote Futures Initiative hopes to bring remote work opportunities to students in rural communities throughout Arkansas.

Trio New College Network – 3-D Learning: A New High School to Career Pathway (New Jersey)

Trio New College Network, Gateway U Hybrid College and K-12 education partners LEAD Charter School & Great Oaks Legacy Charter School, have come together to create a model aiming to unify three currently disconnected “dimensions” of our current education system – K-12, higher education and workforce development in order to eliminate barriers to student success. 

WeThrive – EducationWeThrive (Nationwide)

WeThrive leverages a best-in-class curriculum and self-guided interactive modules to activate youth as change-makers who create real companies, earning real revenues as they perfect the practice required to achieve economic prosperity.

# # # 

About the Walton Family Foundation 

The Walton Family Foundation is, at its core, a family-led foundation. Three generations of the descendants of our founders, Sam and Helen Walton, and their spouses, work together to lead the foundation and create access to opportunity for people and communities. We work in three areas: improving K-12 education, protecting rivers and oceans and the communities they support, and investing in our home region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. To learn more, visit and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

About American Student Assistance® (ASA)

American Student Assistance® (ASA) is a national nonprofit committed to helping students know themselves, know their options, and make informed decisions to achieve their education and career goals. ASA believes students should have access to career-connected learning, starting in middle school, so they can develop a plan for their future. ASA fulfills its mission by providing digital-first resources directly to students and support for educators and intermediaries. To learn more about ASA, visit

About Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF)

Driven by a conviction that all children deserve great public schools in their communities, Charter School Growth Fund identifies the country’s best public charter schools, funds their expansion, and helps to increase their impact. They provide funding and support to a community of school leaders who seek to grow and serve more students, whether they are expanding from one to two schools, or building a network of many schools.

About Arnold Ventures

Arnold Ventures is a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States –  investing in sustainable change, building it from the ground up based on research, deep thinking, and a strong foundation of evidence. They drive public conversation, craft policy, and inspire action through education and advocacy.

Revitalizing Rural Economies with Innovative Professional Development

By the Catalyze Challenge

Students from Digital Pathways in the Rural Heartland

As opportunities for manufacturing and agricultural careers decrease with the rise of automation, the workforce landscape in rural America is changing. Education and employers must evolve to meet the changing needs of today’s economy and students­. Rural America has the opportunity to harness the talent in their classrooms to increase economic growth for their communities.

Without intentional strategies to help communities access educational and career opportunities, rural America will increasingly experience a digital and economic divide in talent and socio-economic growth.

Catalyze Challenge winners are shortening the distance between classroom and careers in rural America to create more local economic opportunities and set up young people for life-long career success.

Innovation and Job Creation in Rural Communities with Collegiate Edu-Nation

With a vision of thriving rural communities, Collegiate Edu-Nation supports students from their first day of preschool to the start of a meaningful career. Boasting goals of 100% high school graduation rate and 80% bachelor’s degree attainment for Collegiate Edu-Nation participants, this ambitious program aims to break the cycle of rural decline and embed a mindset of “Rural Hope” into Texas communities.

“I grew up in Roscoe and have seen firsthand the rural decline; it’s a state and national trend. The best and brightest leave for opportunities never to return and you end up with rural brain drain and loss of social capital and growth in generational poverty… We did the research and realized we could do better” – Dr. Kim Alexander, former school superintendent and Collegiate Edu-Nation CEO.

Collegiate Edu-Nation connects school districts with training and resources in a number of critical areas, including capacity building, intentional service supports, statewide networking, and professional development, leading to authentic college and career readiness for all students.

Introducing Students to Digital Software Careers with Digital Pathways in the Rural Heartland

Big Tech isn’t just for Silicon Valley. With their Digital Pathways in the Rural Heartland initiative, Crowder College and Codefi joined forces to reshape the narrative about career opportunities in rural America from one centered on manufacturing and agriculture to one that includes a flourishing digital workforce. The Digital Pathways in the Rural Heartland offers courses for middle and high school students in rural Missouri to learn about career opportunities and gain professional experience in software development.

“Ideally, when we finish our first year, we have students that are employable because of regional CTE [Career and Technical Education] experience. In the meantime at Crowder, we have Postsecondary learning options to continue if they choose to,“ -Chett Daniel, Crowder College Director of Research and Innovations.

After completing the coursework from this initiative, students will have the opportunity to earn industry-recognized credentials that can open doors to well-paying careers. This initiative will contribute to eliminating skills and opportunity gaps and strengthening local economies.

Bringing remote Career Opportunities to Rural Arkansas with Just and Thriving Remote Futures

Seeing the trend of work-from-home opportunities increasing throughout the US, Just and Thriving Remote Futures hopes to bring remote work opportunities to students in rural communities throughout Arkansas.  

“In our conversations with youth we saw a real creative entrepreneurial spirit. Few talked about leaving their community… The first change we want to see is narrative change – that you can stay home in your very rural community still and have a career that will provide for you and your family.” – Candace Williams, Rural Community Alliance Executive Director.

Visit the Winners to learn more about all of the winning Round 1 Catalyze Challenge solutions and stay tuned for more to come on Round 2 – applications opening soon!

Meeting Learners Where They Are

By the Catalyze Challenge

Student from WeThrive

The workforce of tomorrow is in the classrooms today. To ensure that students are given the best opportunities to succeed, their education must prepare them with the skills needed to thrive in various careers. 

School curriculums must be expanded to include career exploration and learning opportunities that will benefit students as they advance on their educational and career journeys.

Catalyze Challenge winners are setting students up for success with entrepreneurial and soft skills training before entering the workforce.

Teaching High-Demand Job Skills Inside the Classroom with Education Design Lab

Education Design Lab is making students more competitive applicants for colleges and employers by creating credentialed programs for soft skills. The Lab’s research has found that collaboration, creative problem-solving, and empathy are in high demand by employers. In partnership with Polk County Public Schools in Florida and local business and alignment organizations (Polk Vision and Central Florida Development Council), Education Design Lab is creating a unique pilot program to teach 450 11th and 12th graders these skills. Participating students will receive digital micro-credentials they can include on job and college applications.

The digital micro-credentials and college credit for the learning and demonstration of soft skills do not yet exist and could be a gamechanger for young people, as a bridge to college and careers. The ultimate goal of this pilot would be to see how the intentional teaching of these skills can increase rates of graduation, job placement, and higher education matriculation. Southern New Hampshire University is analyzing the micro-credentials for the potential award of college credit.

“Education Design Lab is delighted to have identified Polk County Schools and the community of Polk County as partners in the Propel Polk! initiative. Polk County demonstrates an extensive learn-earn ecosystem with active engagement of community and business leaders in cultivation of a strong talent pipeline to drive local economic vitality.  Florida is embracing digital credentials as a means for reinforcing a rapid response to get skilled talent into high-need jobs” – Dr. Naomi Boyer, Senior Director, Skills and Data Ecosystem, Education Design Lab.

Encouraging the Entrepreneurial Spirit in Middle and High School Students

WeThrive equips low-income 7th-10th grade youth to grow into entrepreneurs. The organization provides students with mentorships, life skills training, financial training, and funding needed to develop and launch their business ideas.

“Our youth are identifying a problem in their local community, sharpening it into a solution, and then using seed money we provide them, they launch it keeping the traction and revenue. Typically, youth are engaged from the lens of ‘what are you allowed to do,’ and it’s about benchmarks and metrics. WeThrive’s approach is more like an open field, “tell us where you want to run, we have resources for you” Daquan Oliver, WeThrive Founder and Executive Director.

Ultimately, WeThrive aims to support a generation of students to unleash their intellectual and economic potential and close racial wealth and achievement gaps throughout the United States.

Visit the Winners to learn more about all of the winning Round 1 Catalyze Challenge solutions and stay tuned for more to come on Round 2 – applications opening soon!

Harnessing Tech for School to Career Success for Students

By the Catalyze Challenge

Students from The Next Step

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, students, parents, educators, and employers are all examining how education must change to meet the needs of the future. In particular, technological advances have created more career options for students than we could have imagined 20 years ago – and it’s vital they’re equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet these opportunities head on. 

Catalyze Challenge winners are leveling the playing field through technology to bring workplace learning into the hands of more young people across the country.

Real world experience with a paycheck

Building from a successful pilot program, The Next Step is a creative agency of BIPOC high school students from underserved communities across California and New York, working with professional mentors from CodeSpeak Labs, who get real world experience doing web development and social media marketing for mission-driven organizations. 

“We were deep into the pandemic, and students told us that the continued lockdown made them feel like their dreams and goals were on hold. At the same time, they found solace in social media and creating digital art at home. We enable our students to use their passion for art and technology in ways that directly translate into real world experience, impact, and a paycheck.” – Jen Chiou, CodeSpeak Labs Founder.

Students work closely with mentors, including professional graphic designers and web developers. Unlike in traditional school settings, the focus isn’t on achieving a grade, instead prioritizing milestones of a professional workplace and gaining practical, applicable skills that allow students to make a career out of their passions without a college degree.

Tech and data literacy for economic mobility

Hack the Hood uplifts early career youth and communities of color through tech skill-building programs grounded in justice. They also provide career navigation support that ensures economic mobility. Since 2013, Hack the Hood has served over 1,300 learners  of color, ages 16-25 by teaching them web design fundamentals and paying them to build websites for over 450 small business owners across the Bay area. In 2020, Hack the Hood developed its curriculum to increase the technical rigor, to include data science fundamentals, and to ground it in tech justice — using technology to build community-based solutions.They’re excited to use the funds received through the Catalyze Challenge to pilot a one-year community college cohort for learners to obtain a Computer Information Systems Associate of Science degree and/or STEM certification, and land a paid tech career opportunity. Hack the Hood plans to build upon these successes and scale their program to reach even more young people. 

“My goal is to continue the work we’ve begun years ago to help young people find employment and find themselves – we’re in the business of people development. What sets us apart is our vision: we want students of color to see themselves in the tech space.”  – Tiffany Shumate, Hack the Hood Executive Director.

“Computer Science is a powerful tool that allows me to use few resources to make large, positive impact on my community.” – Hack the Hood Learner

Visit the Winners to learn more about all of the winning Round 1 Catalyze Challenge solutions and stay tuned for more to come on Round 2 – applications opening soon!