IF THERE IS one thing we can predict with confidence about the Greater Boston labor market, it is that those with only a high school diploma will have very limited access to jobs that can put them on a path to a family-sustaining wage. This is what was so dismaying about a recent study reporting declining college enrollment and stagnating college completion rates of high school graduates in Boston.

The numbers are daunting: Only 52 percent of graduates in 2021 went on to college; and only 52 percent of the Class of 2015 graduates had attained a two or four-year college degree six years later. If you factor in an 80 percent high school graduation rate, this means that only one in five students entering 9th grade has attained a college degree 10 years later. Even more sobering is that roughly half of the four-year degrees went to students who attended one of the city’s three exam schools. The college completion rate for graduates of all the non-exam schools taken together was 38 percent.

The path forward for Boston needs to begin by acknowledging the reality of these baseline data. If one was in any doubt about the impact of COVID on the lives of urban adolescents, the 17-point drop in college-going rates between the Class of 2017 and the Class of 2021 speaks volumes about the cost not simply in learning loss but in the disruption of planning for life beyond high school.

How should city leaders respond to this crisis in the lives of its young people?

For the past decade I’ve been working with colleagues at Jobs for the Future and leaders from a diverse group of states and metro regions who have come together to form the Pathways to Prosperity Network. The goal of the network has been to help our members build career pathways systems that span high school and the first two years of college and provide students with the skills, work experience, and credentials to get started on a career pathway in a high-demand field.

Two big goals have been central to our work: providing all young people the opportunity to get started on college while in high school; and providing all with sufficient exposure to the  world of work and careers, including paid internships, to enable them to make an informed choice about the best education or training pathway to follow upon graduation. We believe that these goals, if embraced by leaders across Boston’s public, private, and non-profit sectors, could provide a path forward for our young people.

Our focus in the Pathways Network has been on the middle skills portion of the labor market, especially on jobs in fields like IT, health care, engineering, and advanced manufacturing that require something beyond high school but not necessarily a four-year degree.

For this work, community and technical colleges – for Boston, think Bunker Hill Community College and Franklin Cummings Tech – have been the critical institutions, sitting as they do between high schools on the one side and employers on the other. Our mantra has been, let’s focus on getting everyone “a first postsecondary credential with value in the labor market,” while always leaving open the option for students to go on to get more education as needed.

In a perfect world, we might want everyone to attain a four-year degree, join the middle class, and live happily ever after. However, this is not the world we live in.

Fewer than 40 percent of working Americans have a bachelor’s degree or better, and these numbers vary hugely by race and socioeconomic status. By one account, fewer than 15 percent of those who come from families that fall in the bottom 40 percent of the wealth distribution have attained a four-year degree by age 25. Furthermore, given the costs of college, growing proportions of young people and parents are telling pollsters that a college degree is no longer so important to them.

This disaffection with degrees is increasingly shared by employers. Large companies like IBM and Accenture are rapidly reducing the number of job listings that require a bachelor’s degree and moving toward skills-based hiring and the development of their own apprenticeship programs. The new governor of Pennsylvania recently joined two other states in removing BA/BS requirements from over 90 percent of state jobs. In a recent poll 72 percent of employers said they don’t see degrees as reliable predictors of job performance.

For these reasons, we think Boston and the state’s Gateway Cities should focus more intently on the goal of “a first postsecondary credential with value in the labor market.” This could be one or more industry certifications, an apprenticeship, a two-year degree in a career field, or a four-year degree.

The recent expansion in Boston and other cities of state-designated, career-focused Early College partnerships is a great building block toward this goal, for we know from national and state data that Early College students are not only more likely to graduate than their matched peers but also to enroll and persist in college.

The Early College movement, however, would be greatly strengthened if more companies could be persuaded to act in their own economic self-interest and provide paid work experience aligned with a student’s early college career pathway of choice, supporting students through the transition from high school to community college and on into the workforce.

Bob Schwartz is a professor emeritus at Harvard Graduate School of Education and senior advisor at the Harvard Project on Workforce. He co-authored Learning for Careers (2017) and co-edited America’s Hidden Economic Engines (2023), both published by Harvard Education Press. Earlier in his career he served as education advisor to Boston Mayor Kevin White and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.