Roughly 20 million Americans were enrolled in two- and four-year colleges across the United States last year, a figure that sounds impressive until you realize that only about 57 percent of U.S. students actually graduate. More than a third never receive a credential of any kind—and the impact is profound.

Students who drop out of college are more likely to default on student loans, make less money throughout their lifetimes and more likely to find themselves in poverty, studies show. It was a cycle Paymon Rouhanifard could recognize.

“I can see the faces of my old students,” he said. “They did everything we asked them to do. But I believe the system failed so many of them.”

Rouhanifard, the former superintendent at Camden City School District in New Jersey, and John White, the current Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, decided to do something about it. The two veteran educators, who met each other years ago while working in the New York City schools, launched Propel America earlier this year.

Propel America has an ambitious goal: to bring high schools, local employers, and educational facilities like training centers and colleges into alignment in order to provide students with education and an upwardly mobile first job, right in their own communities.

“We came to understand that setting students up for success meant thinking beyond graduation rates,” Rouhanifard and White wrote in a letter announcing the organization in May. “Every year, we saw students graduate with immense potential—and every year, too many of those students floundered. They had completed high school successfully, but were left without a viable, affordable pathway to a strong first job. They had been presented with a false choice: forgo income and accrue significant debt while pursuing a traditional 2- or 4-year degree; or forgo education for low-wage work without upward mobility.”

The model that White and Rouhanifard created, which is being tested in Louisiana and New Jersey, is designed to address local employment needs and provide students with an educational path that yields a solid job in the near term and a career path that is long term.

For example, a high school graduate can train to be a Certified Medical Assistant, a job that paid a median annual wage of more than $33,600 nationwide in 2018 and garnered as much as $47,000 in some areas, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet, that is only a beginning. In a few years, with more education, that CMA can earn an associate degree, obtain certification and licensing and become a Radiologic Technologist, making more money still. The median annual pay in 2018 was about $61,000 and as much as $99,000 for top earners, according to the BLS.

The result is a student who received training and started with a job right out of high school, continued to pursue education as they traveled a career path in their chosen industry, and significantly increased their skills, their value and their salary along the way.

Research suggests that if colleges could increase their graduation rates from 57 percent to the rate of U.S. high schools, which is 84 percent, for even one class, the impact would be massive. It would increase wages for two-year degree holders by an average of almost $5,000 a year; increase wages for four-year degree holders by an average of almost $19,000 a year; and keep roughly 48,000 out of poverty, according to a study by the think tank Third Way.

Of course, jobs in healthcare and other vital fields are available in most communities—especially now, with unemployment low and employers in need—and most offer solid health benefits. The key is to put students on the path right from high school and support them as they transition.

“The answer is right under our noses,” Rouhanifard said, noting that there are similar paths in many industries, from building trades to information technology. “We’ve got to create a system to support these students.”

The system that Propel America created begins in high school with a semester-long course senior year designed to teach employment skills and familiarize students with local employers and opportunities.

Propel America then offers a program that connects students with training in their field, often at a community college; introduces them to a local employer who has job openings; and gives them a stipend of about $60 a day while they are in training. The goal is to provide students with a stable way to pursue an education that makes them highly employable.

In places like Camden and Pennsauken, New Jersey, and Baton Rouge and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Propel America has pilot programs that are attracting students. “They understand that this is a path that involves college,” Rouhanifard said. “That is the biggest selling point. It’s free and they get paid to go to school, but that’s not the primary reason (they join). The primary reason is college.”

Propel America will be training roughly 50 students in its program across Louisiana and New Jersey. “It’s small, but we’re learning a ton,” Rouhanifard said, adding that, “We wanted to get inside schools to understand what scales.”

The first cohort of students will not graduate from training until later this year, entering the workforce in the first quarter of 2020. Propel America will keep robust data on the students, tracking the credentials they obtain, the jobs they land—even metrics such as debt and credit ratings. “We believe in being data driven,” Rouhanifard said.

As Forbes observed in April, “Propel America is more a template than a program.” That’s a characterization that the organization embraces. If the pilots yield results, the model can be exported to other states.

As Rouhanifard put it, “We believe this is a template that you can bring anywhere in the country.”

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