Context: Research increasingly suggests that the high school diploma has lost its meaning as a symbol of life preparation. Having faced economic struggles earlier and longer than most regions of the United States, the “Rust Belt” region offers important lessons for the broader nation regarding how high schools might prepare youth for stable futures. Much like in towns in India and China, communities in the United States’ Rust Belt experience a paradox of wanting youth to find successful careers but not leave the area.
Focus of Study: Recent research connections between high school and college have focused on the role of signaling strategies in preparing young people for postsecondary opportunities. High-quality signals that are clear, aligned, and consistent can positively influence student outcomes. This article examines the types of policy signals that local Rust Belt communities are trying to develop to both improve postsecondary attendance of young people and retain young people in their home communities as they choose career pathways.
Research Design: Three cases—”Steeltown,” “Milltown,” and “Railtown”—were chosen using a comparative case study design intended for the purpose of explanation building. Data-collection strategies consisted of a combination of semistructured interviews and document collection to ascertain the visions, intentions, and implementation of the reform efforts of the selected communities. Interview protocols explored the actors, problem definitions, collaborative patterns, and implementation of initiatives. Extensive written documentation from each city that served as validity checks of the interview data. Data analysis involved a grounded theory approach of moving from raw data to conclusions using a data reduction process that involved an extensive coding strategy and case histories.
Findings: The strategies of the three cases suggest that three specific signaling strategies were most often used to address individual and community policy needs in these Pennsylvania communities: achievement, alignment, and awareness. The focus on academic achievement was the most consistent strategy, but weak in terms of providing a connection to postsecondary signaling. Awareness strategies consisted of teaching youth and their families about the growing fields of industry in a local area. Alignment strategies provided a way for youth to see the full pathway to potential careers. They included a focus on creating easier transitions between traditional high school, vocational-technical high schools, community colleges, technical schools, and four-year institutions.
Conclusions: The alignment strategies presented in these cases were not always consistent with the awareness strategies that encouraged youth to stay local in job searches. Alignment strategies therefore often prioritized youth needs over community needs. If alignment efforts are paired with building awareness of local career opportunities, however, they could help to strengthen and rebuild Rust Belt communities. A combined strategy could both increase understanding of careers and provide a pathway to get the training necessary to compete for these available jobs.