In the past, many jobs in the agriculture-dependent Yakima Valley have not required an education past high school, and access to further education for many students has been difficult. But that history is changing in the present — especially in the skills needed for jobs — and is likely to accelerate in the future. Students and the schools that educate them will need to change with these times.
A Yakima Herald-Republic story earlier this month spelled out the concerns held by many educators about the still-low numbers of students pursuing postsecondary education, especially in college. The reasons are familiar: high poverty rates in a low-wage economy with many seasonal jobs; transportation challenges in getting to classes — four-year access has improved in recent years but remains an issue; and the number of students from families without postsecondary education. Too many K-12 students in the Valley grow up believing that college is unattainable or unnecessary. Also, many teenagers have to work to support their family and feel they don’t have time for school.
Over a five-year period earlier this decade, only about half of Yakima Valley high school graduates enrolled in a two-year or four-year college; this compares with 60 percent statewide and 69 percent nationwide. And while the educators focused on sending students to college, there are also ways to prepare students for available jobs through other means.
Automation and computerization in the workplace are putting a premium on mechanical and computer know-how. College can prepare students for many of those jobs, but many students can gain qualifications through apprenticeships, certificate programs and technical school degrees.
Schools say they are working to align graduation requirements with what colleges seek, along with collaborating with business to produce graduates with skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Many colleges are actively increasing scholarship opportunities, but finances remain an issue — even at community colleges that are commonly viewed as a lower-cost alternative to four-year schools.
Whatever the educational path that students take to gain additional skills, our schools must continue to stress that education doesn’t end after the 12th grade. They can work to instill aspirations for those of low economic means, and to educate them on educational and financial aid options.
All of the state’s postsecondary options are needed to help students eventually contribute to society and to fill the skills gap that continues to dog businesses in the Valley and across the state. Schools are recognizing the need, but it’s clear that more work needs to be done.
* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.