Editor’s note: Don Shalvey is the chief executive officer of San Joaquin A+, which consists of a group of educators, business leaders, active citizens and philanthropists who support education. Mr. Shalvey  has spent the past 55 years in public education, including serving as a deputy director for K-12 Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and he is the founder and former CEO of Aspire Public Schools. Mr. Shalvey’s opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of Stocktonia News Service.

This statement will probably come as no surprise to many reading this column: College is expensive.

After adjusting for inflation, college tuition has increased 748 percent since 1963. Students are smart. They’re weighing the value of that degree against the burden of taking on significant debt. More and more students are deciding that it’s just not worth it. 

Research conducted by the organization I lead, San Joaquin A+, has shown that as recently as 2021, nearly 60 percent of Stockton residents said college was a “questionable investment because of high student loans and limited job opportunities”.

This is a challenge that we need to solve collectively, as a region. Because even though people are skeptical of the value of a college degree, the data is pretty clear: a college degree makes a massive difference when it comes to lifetime earnings. Residents of Stockton understand this intuitively. Fifty-one percent (51%) in a recent poll said that job opportunities were not good/poor for people without a college degree. Meanwhile, wages are plummeting, job growth is clustered in low-paying jobs, and Stockton’s economy is becoming less and less competitive compared to its neighbors.

The answer cannot be to do more of the same. It’s not fair to ask students to take on a massive debt obligation to get a degree, but we also need more students to opt-in to college. The task ahead of us should be to reimagine education in San Joaquin County, to create a model that allows students to get an affordable college degree, while also preparing them for high-paying jobs that are available in our region.

There is such a model. They’re called Early College & Career High Schools, and they work like this: instead of enrolling students in a general education high school, students enroll in a school specifically geared towards a particular career path. Over the course of their high school experience, students gain college credit in that particular field. In some cases, students graduate high school with an associate degree, without ever having to pay for college. In other cases, students are well on their way to earning a four year degree by the time they graduate high school, and can actually attain a bachelor’s degree in just a year or two of college, dramatically reducing the cost of a four year college education.

A few examples worth noting:

The Arizona Agribusiness & Equine Early College High School (AAE) is located in Phoenix, AZ. Embedded in the college preparatory program of AAE are courses that allow students to prepare for careers in veterinary, animal, equine and agricultural sciences. After students complete Introduction to Agriculture – the 9th grade science requirement – the in-depth, elective courses in these areas serve as solid preparation for university pre-med, pre-vet, and animal science courses. Internships provide yet another dimension to this preparation.

The Wake Early College of Health and Sciences (WECHS) is located in Raleigh, NC. WECHS provides students with opportunities to explore careers in the health and sciences through partnerships with Wake Tech and WakeMed Health and Hospitals. This up to five-year public high school program allows students to earn their high school diploma and an associate degree, college transfer credit, the prerequisite courses to prepare for a health sciences degree, and/or a health care certificate. 

TEACH! Academy is located right here in Stockton. TEACH! Academy is designed to provide students with a free associate degree in elementary education from San Joaquin Delta College by the time they graduate high school, as well as an affordable pathway to complete their bachelor’s degree at Humphreys University, and to get their teaching credential through the Teachers College of San Joaquin.

These programs are incredibly popular. A recent poll commissioned by San Joaquin A+ showed that 92% of residents in Stockton supported the early college high school model and wanted to see more of them in the San Joaquin Valley.

To do so will mean that education leaders in our region need to think creatively about partnerships with job-creating industries, especially in fields like agriculture, education and healthcare. We need to offer students a radically different value proposition for their time spent in our high schools, and stop telling every student that a one-size fits all high school and four year college degree is right for them. If we do all of this, we can create a national model for what high school can look like for the next generation, right here in the San Joaquin Valley. 

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