Among leaders and practitioners in K-12 public education, there is a shared belief that if our students are provided with high-quality instruction and curricula, obtain stellar grades, and are admitted into college, they will become thriving middle-income adults. The reality doesn’t conform to this rose-colored view.
There are barriers to entering the middle class far more complex and challenging than what a quality public education and admission into a four-year college can remove—especially if those graduates identify as BIPOC. While admission to a four-year college increases the likelihood that high school graduates will become middle-class working adults, in my experience it’s not necessarily an indication that they will. To make a difference for these students, we need to challenge how we define success—and how much onus we place on college admissions when we talk about that success.
My personal theory of change is if we teach our students about the fundamentals of creating a life full of options, then students will create their own paths that lead to becoming middle-class working adults.
Angelique Nieves, a graduate of the Cannabis Dispensary Certificate program, is an example of how a path can change when a student learns to create options. As the executive director of Workforce Equity at one of the seven City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), I oversee a grant that provides scholarships for short-term certificate programs leading to employment for in-demand, above-livable-wage jobs. Olive-Harvey College is a small community college in the Southeast side of Chicago—we are closer to Indiana than we are to downtown Chicago—nestled between heavily polluted industry and blighted neighborhoods. I had the pleasure to launch the Cannabis Dispensary Operations academic program the very same month the State of Illinois launched one of the most groundbreaking recreational cannabis legalization bills in the country—one grounded in social equity, and aiming to address the devastating impact of the war on drugs.
While managing this program, I met Angelique, a 24-year-old Latina from Humboldt Park who expressed a desire to start a career in this lucrative regulated market. Angelique fits the perfect profile for our work: she graduated from Chicago Public Schools with a dual associate’s degree in IT and was admitted to a great university in Iowa.
On paper, Angelique did everything right—in fact, she exceeded the ideal discussed earlier. Admission into college: check. Great public high school education: check (and earned a two-year college degree in the process: double check). Thus, one may assume that at age 24 she would be in the middle class, or quickly approaching it if a tech career was on her horizon. The reality was, disillusioned by her four-year college experience in Iowa, Angelique didn’t persist. After leaving that university she began a career in the restaurant industry in a part-time position.
Angelique did everything right and, as an adult, she still ended up working a part-time job, earning below a livable wage.
After being laid off during the pandemic, Angelique realized that her current situation left few options to reach a better quality of life—which led her to see me. She applied for a scholarship and re-enrolled in college in order to gain a credential of economic value. In less than three months, Angelique, enrolled in a 11-credit hour program; was provided a 12-week work-based learning job working at a dispensary, which paid a stipend; received career coaching and access to employers; and interviewed for two positions. After completing the program, she received an offer for a full-time position earning $45,000, was coached on how to negotiate for more, and accepted a full-time, salaried position with benefits earning $52,000 per year working for Cresco Labs corporate office. Her journey was featured in the Chicago Tribune. This type of job offer might sound typical for a college graduate from the university in Iowa where Angelique studied—but a comparable end result doesn’t mean that the path to get there was typical.
Angelique experienced moments at City Colleges of Chicago that challenged her thinking about what it takes to be a working adult and whether she fit that mold. She was in unchartered waters and felt the pressures of workplace politics sidetracking her; she was tired; she was fatigued by the interview prep, and intimidated by the 45-minute performance task. I recall a moment of discouragement when she considered just accepting two part-time jobs instead, because choosing that route felt more probable than continuing the hiring process for the one salaried role. She felt dispirited by this foreign path. But we coached her back. I believe Chicago Public Schools taught Angelique resilience and grit and we at Olive-Harvey College built upon those learning outcomes to teach her how to pivot those skills into creating opportunities and choices. Her choices, with a little coaching, created that path for her to become a middle-income working adult.
With grant funds provided by the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), we made a small programmatic investment of $3,078 in Angelique. The return on that investment will be paid back to the state over several working years by Angelique in the form of her income taxes – making this type of work a win-win for the books.
Higher education, a workplace equity program, grant funds, and recreational cannabis laws might make strange bedfellows. However, when you strike the right balance of academic vision, innovative ideas and identifying opportunities with precision, wonderful outcomes can ensue.
Practitioners and leaders, I share this story to challenge your organizations to engage in a dialogue about how your work is helping to develop thriving adults with these important questions:
- Develop a profile of your graduates as 24-year-old adults. Who are they? Where do they work? Where do they live? What community are they from? What is their household income? What essential skills from their public education are they deploying? What is their current job? How much do they earn? What is their desired quality of life? The answers to these questions may provide more insight on your models and curriculum.
- What are the “strange bedfellows” within your organizational and local context? Are there opportunities that seem potentially rewarding, but somehow feel off-brand? Are you bypassing opportunities that would benefit your students more than they benefit the organization? These answers may help to enhance your organization’s brand awareness and attract opportunities that fall outside of areas of typical exploration.
- What essential skills are you including in your curriculum? In what ways does your curriculum assist your graduates in creating and identifying opportunities that provide them with options for entering the middle class? What tools and resources do you want your students to leverage should they not persist in college? The answers to these questions will help you explore and deepen social-emotional, critical thinking, and life skills that graduates can deploy as adults.
As a practitioner who works with adult learners who are graduates of public education, I see, first-hand, the impact of life’s setbacks. If we teach students to believe that they are the sum of their plans to attend college, they can too easily be derailed. Instead, public education should build a foundation for our students to believe that they are the sum of all of their decision-making leading up to and throughout adulthood. Angelique’s story demonstrates that preparing students to adeptly navigate decision-making can help them make choices that lead to the middle class and adulthood success, regardless of college degree attainment.