The study recommends a “comprehensive pathways network” that would include three elements: embracing multiple approaches to help youth make the transition to adulthood, involving the nation’s employers in things like work-based learning, and creating a new social compact with young people.

Many of the ideas aren’t new, and leaders, including President Barack Obama, have advocated for an increased role for community colleges so the country can once again lead the world in the proportion of college graduates.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will deliver opening remarks at the report’s release in Washington.

But the idea of providing more alternatives, rather than emphasizing a four-year college education for all, hasn’t been without controversy.

Critics fear students who opt early for a vocational approach might limit their options later on, or that disadvantaged students at failing schools would be pushed into technical careers and away from the highly selective colleges where their numbers are already very slim.

“You’ve got to work on both fronts at once,” Schwartz said, arguing for intensifying efforts to get more low-income and minority students into selective institutions while strengthening the capacity of two-year colleges.

The study recommends that all major occupations be clearly outlined at the start of high school. Students would see directly how their course choices prepare them careers that interest them — but still be able to change their minds. Students should also be given more opportunities for work-based learning, such as job shadowing and internships.

Students, the researchers recommend, should get career counseling and work-related opportunities early on–no later than middle school.

In high school, students would have access to educational programs designed with the help of industry leaders, and they’d be able to participate in paid internships.

The report notes that many European countries already have such an approach, and that their youth tend to have a smoother transition into adulthood. And not all separate children into different paths at an early age.

Finland and Denmark, for example, provide all students with a comprehensive education through grades 9 or 10. Then they are allowed to decide what type of secondary education they’d like to pursue.

Barney Bishop, president and CEO of Advanced Industries of Florida, said he would advocate for an approach that provides more alternatives and greater inclusion of the business community.

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