Expanding beyond college, ‘promise’ scholarships roll out youth apprenticeships

These city-level pioneers in expanding college access are now taking a broader view of what it takes to improve economic mobility.

A decade ago, fewer than half of the students in Buffalo’s schools graduated on time. Now, more than three quarters do. A lot has changed in the city’s schools in the past decade—but leaders on the school board give a lot of the credit to Say Yes Buffalo, the city’s popular promise scholarship program.

Since 2012, it has inspired thousands of students to complete high school, and provided 6,300 college scholarships for students totaling over $20 million. About 2,500 of those students have already completed degrees.

But now, says David Rust, the organization’s CEO, they’re embarking on “potentially the most important project we’ve taken on.”

This past month, Say Yes Buffalo launched a new program focused on youth apprenticeships—designed to give students new paths into growing industries like advanced manufacturing and tech. And they aren’t the only scholarship program headed down this route.

The big idea: At least three promise scholarship programs—including the first-ever such program in Kalamazoo, Michigan—have broadened their focus in recent years to include funding for apprenticeships, not just traditional degree programs.

“It’s an interesting shift in their bread and butter approach to college scholarships,” says Taylor White, the national director of the Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship and a senior policy advisor at New America.

While still early days for Say Yes Buffalo, Rust says students and community members have embraced the expansion and see youth apprenticeships as just a different way to get a good education and a good job. 

Students drawn to apprenticeships, he says, have emphasized that they “didn’t want to settle for mediocrity.”

The what and why

Statewide Promise programs traditionally provided scholarships for students to pursue two- or four-year degrees at public colleges and universities. These place-based programs provide financial assistance for tuition and fees to students, during a time when families across the country are struggling with the sky-rocketing costs of college. A Public Agenda survey this summer found that just half of Americans felt that the benefits of college outweigh the costs. At the same time, many are realizing that a traditional degree pathway is not the only stepping stone to a good career.

The convergence of those two sentiments has no doubt boosted support for apprenticeship programming and funding. Since 2012, the number of learners in registered apprenticeships has increased 64%, even with a significant downturn in the earliest stages of the pandemic. 

  • In 2021, companies and other organizations established almost 2,900 new apprenticeship programs, for a total of almost 27,000 active registered programs across the nation.
  • And between 2010 and 2020, the number of youth apprentices in federally-registered programs grew 113 percent from almost 18,900 to 40,300.

Youth apprenticeship programs allow high school students to do classwork alongside work-based learning. 

Earn and learn

The Kalamazoo Promise in Kalamazoo, Mich., launched in 2005 and is the longest operating promise program in the country. It has helped over 10,000 students. In response to workforce needs in western Michigan, the program partnered with Kalamazoo Valley Community College, Kalamazoo Public Schools, the city, and local business and community partners last year to create a youth apprenticeship program.

What’s changing: Career Launch Kalamazoo, which launched this fall, provides paid, on-the-job training to high school juniors and seniors. Students can take college courses and gain industry credentials and certifications, while getting paid at least $15 an hour. The apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships are led by local industry professionals in the fields of the skilled trades, IT, and manufacturing. Industry partners include Mann+Hummel, Flowserve, and Bronson Healthcare.

Von Washington, Jr., executive director of community relations for the Kalamazoo Promise, says the program has always supported vocational certifications through local community colleges. The idea of apprenticeships caught fire five years ago, he says, after calls from industry leaders to make sure there was a talented and viable local workforce.

Career Launch Kalamazoo has an initial cohort of five, but Washington says leaders expect a much larger group next session based on widespread interest at public schools. Students in the program apprentice at a local company while also completing high school and community college coursework. 

Once they complete high school, Kalamazoo Promise steps in and pays for the coursework. And they give graduates 10 years to use the rest of their promise scholarships if they decide they want or need additional education.

Over the years, Washington says, the promise program has learned that “scholarship is not enough, we need collaboration like this.”

Booming demand: In Alabama, the Birmingham Promise program is doing similar work. The group launched in 2019 with a tuition assistance program and a work-based learning initiative. Now, it has partnered with Birmingham City Schools and the City of Birmingham to expand its internship programs into youth apprenticeships for high school juniors and seniors. The goal is to help more students move into careers in high-growth areas like energy and engineering, finance, healthcare, and IT. 

Say Yes Buffalo is targeting many of the same industries—IT, business operations, and advanced manufacturing—and worked with six local employers in developing its apprenticeship model. Twenty-five students have started in youth apprenticeships, and Say Yes plans on doubling that number to 50 for next summer.

Say Yes Buffalo, Kalamazoo Promise, and Birmingham Promise have all gotten support from New America’s Partnership to Advance Youth Apprenticeship. White is particularly excited about what she sees as the “both, and” focus of the programs—helping students get good jobs in the near-term and ensuring that they are set up to pursue a degree down the road if they want or need to.

  • Students in Say Yes Buffalo’s program, for example, can earn a certificate or two-year degree as part of their youth apprenticeship.

“Promise programs not only are considering career and career support, but also making sure those things are connected to postsecondary learning—to additional options for the future,” White says.

Saying ‘yes’ to apprenticeships 

When Say Yes Buffalo was founded 11 years ago, graduation rates had been falling precipitously for years. As the city worked to rebound, Say Yes committed to provide scholarships for every graduate of the city’s public and charter schools. 

Like Kalamazoo, they found that scholarships were not enough to help students succeed, and over the years they’ve built in a number of wrap-around supports. 

Adding youth apprenticeships, Rust says, is just another example of responding to students’ needs. Say Yes Buffalo conceived of the idea in fall 2019 and it was “sped up” by the pandemic. During this time, students were having to make hard choices about getting a degree and feeding their families, says Rust.

Since they’ve launched, the graduation rate in Buffalo’s public school district has skyrocketed and hundreds more students are now going to college each year. Like in many communities around the country, college-going took a hit in Buffalo during the pandemic. But even so, about 150 more graduates went to college in 2021 than did in 2012. 

The first cohort of modern youth apprentices are working with six local employers, including M&T Bank, Wegmans, Moog, and Harmac. After the completion of their three-year apprenticeships, the students will have earned a certificate or two-year degree and can expect to land a full-time job that pays around $45,000 a year. The median wage in the Buffalo area is about $56,000.

“This is only going to grow—it’s only going to get bigger,” says Rust. “It’s just a great opportunity. You think about an 18-year-old working at a large national bank… The opportunity to earn wealth early, find a job early, be in that professional environment. It’s just incredible. We’re really excited about adding this to our work.”

Rust credits private sector employer partners who have been “awesome” throughout this process. In return for paying the apprentices’ wages, employers benefit in the long term from bringing in a select crop of five to 10 workers every year.

Say Yes works with employers to ensure the jobs are student-worker friendly, and career coaches in the Buffalo public schools work to recruit students. Students and coaches use career match tools and career aptitude tests to fine-tune what students want to pursue, and students apply for jobs posted through a specialized portal. 

Partnerships between public schools, institutions of higher education, industry, and intermediaries are not new. But Rust believes that more working partnerships, like this modern youth apprenticeship program, are “critical for the long term health and vitality” of a region. 

Access to good paying jobs is a huge driver for our economy, and the ability for students to make these links early increases their upward mobility later on, explains Rust.

“It could be a game changer,” Rust says.

Elyse Ashburn contributed reporting to this article.

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