In the early 2000s, when I was in high school in north Mississippi, the message students heard constantly was that our focus should be on getting to college. Whether through sports or academics, we were told going to a four–year institution was how we could be successful. The pathway to getting a good job or career and being able to afford living well ran through a bachelor’s degree program. I took that lesson to heart and focused on making it to college by participating in the “right” summer programs, extracurricular activities, community service, and leadership opportunities that I believed would make me a shoo-in for admission at any university I wanted to attend. By my senior year of high school, I was on my way to making this a reality when a conversation with a classmate who grew up right around the corner from me shifted my perspective and led me to a lifetime of education advocacy.
A group of us were talking during a class and arrived at the subject of what we were going to do after graduation. After some said where we might end up, one of my friends looked at us and said, “I’m not going to college.” I can remember thinking he wasn’t a bad student, could probably get good recommendations and played sports, so I asked why not. He told me he knew even with some financial aid, his family couldn’t afford all the costs that come with attending college, and he would go straight into the workforce instead. Hearing his explanation, I reflected on the “you need a bachelor’s degree to make it” chorus that surrounded high school graduation at the time and wondered why he had to explain his pathway at all.
When I left the classroom and began working in the nonprofit world, my personal philosophy became that we give people multiple pathways and support their career goals. Having only one path would leave too many behind. – Caleb Herod
Four years later, when I made the decision to teach high school math in the Mississippi Delta, I thought of that conversation. I promised myself none of my students would feel like they had to justify if they could not or did not want to go to college. I wanted each young person I worked with not just to learn how to be college-ready, but to make the best choice for themselves and their financial situation. When I left the classroom and began working in the nonprofit world, my personal philosophy became that we give people multiple pathways and support their career goals. Having only one path would leave too many behind.
For a long time, the success of public education and the young people it produced was gauged by the navigation of one pathway: high school graduation leading to college entrance and eventual completion. This roadmap to a career that could support a household ignored the different realities faced by low-income students, especially students of color. Over time, the added value of a college education alone has proven insufficient to help Black and Latinx families build wealth. Other pathways can provide these students with low-cost, debt-reducing options for long-term family-sustaining careers.
Bridges to Brighter Futures is a new education collaboration between Kinship Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust funded through the Searle Funds at The Chicago Community Trust. This initiative is born out of our shared interests in addressing the racial wealth gap by helping Black and Latinx Chicagoans gain equitable access to income-building jobs that provide pathways to continued career development. We recognize that historical barriers and inequities call for bold commitments to provide low-income Chicagoans who are just beginning to choose their career pathways with the information and support they need to navigate the education and workforce landscape successfully.
The Bridges initiative is for students looking to receive a workforce credential that leads to a high-earning career field and for those who are exploring more affordable postsecondary options while moving towards a bachelor’s degree. We have begun this work by focusing on three grounding strategies: advancing institutional equity, building student supports, and encouraging cross-sector collaboration. In our first year of grant making, Bridges has provided funding to City Colleges of Chicago to support the development and implementation of each college’s equity plan, which will increase equity in persistence and completion through shifts in organizational and institutional practices. Our student support grant making encourages organizations with existing programs to improve services and offer new solutions to meet the academic, financial, and social needs of students at City Colleges or in the Bridges pathway. Finally, our cross-sector collaboration grant making aims to increase employer investment in job candidates and remove barriers as students navigate from credentialing programs to careers.
As the Trust’s work in education within our racial wealth gap strategy grows, Bridges to Brighter Futures will serve as a guidepost. Our education grant making will put the long-term financial health and students’ ability to build income while not increasing their debt at the center of our strategy. Whatever the postsecondary pathway a person chooses, they should be confident it can lead to a livable wage. My experience years ago with my classmate taught me making the best choice for one’s educational pathway does not always include a bachelor’s degree. Through Bridges and the Trust’s growing educational strategies, we can provide students and families with the tools to make the best choice for their goals.