The credential is essential: Five key success factors help students reach their goals.

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With a thriving economy and increasing retirements among baby boomers, the job market in Washington state is bursting with opportunities. Recent studies by both the Washington Roundtable and Washington STEM make clear that most jobs available in the coming years will be filled by workers with a post-high school credential, an umbrella term that includes two- and four-year degrees, industry certifications and apprenticeship programs.

Currently, an estimated 40 percent of students in Washington state complete a credential by age 26. The Washington Roundtable and Partnership for Learning have set a stretch goal for Washington’s schools: Raise that rate to 70 percent by the high school class of 2030 (today’s first graders).

“The economy is demanding more from young workers, so much so that it’s moving the goal post on what we must expect of students,” says Brian Jeffries, policy director for Partnership for Learning. “A diploma is a minimum. A credential is a ticket to a good-paying job with advancement opportunities.”

Fanuel Abraha, a senior at Edmonds-Woodway High School, has lived in the United States for less than four years, but he’s received this message loud and clear. “High school is just basically the beginning,” he says. “If you go to college, you can get to a higher place and the future jobs that you want.”

When Abraha came to Mountlake Terrace from Ethiopia three and a half years ago, he spoke Amharic and Tigrinya, but no English. “It was hard trying to keep up with people,” he says. He credits two part-time jobs at Domino’s Pizza and Wendy’s with helping him learn how to communicate.

“When I came here, I didn’t know where I was going or the point of a GPA. My counselor and my friends said, ‘Did you check your GPA?’ I didn’t know what that meant. A counselor explained it to me. Then I started focusing more on school.” (He now has a 3.3 GPA.)

Abraha graduates in June but is already taking all of his classes at Edmonds Community College, where, through the Running Start program, they satisfy his high school graduation requirements and earn him college credit. “When I start college this fall, I will have met most of the prerequisites, and I will have 44 credits by the end of this winter quarter.”

Guided Pathways is a step-by-step road map through a two-year degree. (Provided by Partnership for Learning)

Abraha plans to major in computer science with a goal of working at Microsoft, Google or Amazon. He’ll start at Edmonds Community College for his associate degree, then transfer to Washington State University for his bachelor’s. Then he wants to continue his education with a Master of Computer Science at University of Washington. He hopes to complete an internship at Microsoft before even heading to college.

In other words, he has a plan.

Jeffries says that’s the best place to start: “Begin with understanding your own goals and aspirations and then put together a plan for achieving them.” Planning your path, and completing a High School & Beyond Plan, is what’s known as “college-going behavior.” Basically, it’s one of many specific, necessary activities that lead to successful enrollment in college or other post-high school programs. Other examples of such behaviors include visiting colleges; filling out the FAFSA for financial aid; taking the ACT, PSAT and SAT; and enrolling in advanced courses in high school.

Promoting these behaviors is one of the success factors identified and key to increasing postsecondary enrollment among Washington students. That’s according to a recent study by Seattle-based social impact management consulting firm Kinetic West.

Other success factors include: rigorous academic coursework; robust postsecondary and career guidance; and equity resourcing (getting resources to students who need it most).

Kinetic West analyzed student performance data and looked for best practices in Washington school districts that have been exceptionally successful at raising the postsecondary enrollment rates of their high school graduates. Examples of exemplary districts include Edmonds, Anacortes, Moses Lake, Nooksack Valley, and West Valley (Spokane).

Edmonds School District is achieving 71 percent postsecondary enrollment among its high school graduates compared to 59 percent of graduates statewide. Robust career guidance for students beginning in middle school and a strong partnership between the school district and Edmonds Community College are among the many factors driving this success.

“Our school board wants to ensure every graduate leaves the Edmonds School District with college credit and/or industry certification,” says Dr. Kristine McDuffy, superintendent of Edmonds School District.

Edmonds Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Greg Schwab says, “As part of our yearly advising process with our students, they are required to complete a High School and Beyond plan. Our guidance counselors use this plan to help students and parents think about and plan for their next steps after high school.”

“Successful districts prioritize and track college-going behaviors,” says Kinetic West consulting manager Andy Ferrera, “The reasoning is that what gets measured is what gets done.”

Kinetic West’s research concludes that reaching 70 percent credential attainment statewide is possible, but it will require systemwide changes, including a shift in mindset. “Students, parents, teachers, and policymakers must believe postsecondary is for all students, and each has a role to play in driving student success,” Kinetic West CEO Marc Casale says.

Parents and educators can work with students on their plan. Students can take a rigorous course load. Schools can provide robust postsecondary and career guidance. Districts can target supports to students with greater needs (such as first-generation college goers and low-income students).

Abraha clearly has a plan. He is taking a rigorous course load. He has benefited from the advice of counselors and adults. He also credits his success to communication. His advice for fellow students? “Ask questions! Questions are the most important thing. Talk to a lot of different people. If you don’t ask, you won’t know.”

Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable, brings together business leaders and education partners to improve our state’s education system, so Washington students are ready to pursue the career pathways of their choice. Learn more at credentialessential.com.