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Working to Learn and Learning to Work: A State-by-State Analysis of High School Work-based Learning Policies

Kelly Robson
Jennifer O'Neal Schiess
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Work-based learning – including internships, youth and pre-apprenticeships, and cooperative education programs – allows students to gain work experience while in high school. Through these programs, young people can develop employability and technical skills that can help them succeed beyond high school, including through building positive relationships with adults, developing social capital, and building their networks. High-quality work-based learning also allows students to experience new environments, learn new skills, build a career identity, and better chart a path to and through postsecondary education that aligns to their career goals.

Working to Learn and Learning to Work offers a state-by-state analysis of work-based learning policies. While states are in very different places in terms of implementing work-based learning programs, the analysis surfaced six key themes:

  1. State approaches to work-based learning policies tend to fall into two broad buckets: centralized and decentralized. 
  2. A majority of states have broad eligibility requirements for participation in work-based learning; however, very few states commit to ensuring that every student can access a variety of work-based learning experiences.
  3. Very few states have developed explicit policies or programs to support high-need high school students and remove barriers to equitable access and success in work-based learning. 
  4. States commonly leverage federal funds focused on workforce supports to fund high school work-based learning, while a few states also provide dedicated state funding, incentives, and other infrastructure supports specific to work-based learning. 
  5. Very few states do a good job of communicating available high school work-based learning opportunities. 
  6. Many states have not yet set clear quality and accountability expectations or developed systems to collect and use data on high school work-based learning for program improvement.

These themes point to several key levers for strengthening work-based learning: 

  • States in the early stages of developing programs should start by clearly defining what work-based learning means in their state and what quality looks like. 
  • States further along in the implementation process should focus on collecting, tracking, and using data and on building a strong communications and support infrastructure. 
  • All states must ensure universal access for all students and adequate funding for all parties. 

Through strong, high-quality work-based learning programs, states can help ensure that their education programs prepare young people for success beyond high school, while simultaneously working to strengthen the talent pipelines of local businesses and address the economic and workforce needs of entire communities. 

Download the summary report and accompanying deck or read them both in the viewer panes below.