Illias Gomez thought he was doing pretty well for himself when he got a part-time job as a host at a local Olive Garden during his sophomore year in high school.

“It was my first job, so I thought I was making a lot of money,” Gomez recalls of the position, which paid $10 an hour.

His perspective changed when—in the summer of 2021, before his senior year—he landed an internship at IBM making $21.50 an hour, working on media and entertainment projects for the company. The higher wage not only more than doubled his salary, but also proved life-changing for Illias and his family, who reside in Mesquite, Texas, just outside of Dallas.

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For starters, the job came with a $750 stipend for home office equipment. Gomez used the stipend and his salary to buy an L-shaped desk and two computers to create a home studio. The studio serves as a sanctuary where he can pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a video game developer—a dream that goes back to when he was a four-year-old playing God of War on his uncle’s PlayStation 2.

He also saved up to buy himself a car—a blue 2004 Honda Civic EX. He bought his stepdad a heat press machine for their fledgling custom T-shirt business. And he bought his mom a manicure nail table so instead of shelling out money to local nail salons, she could do her nails at home, as well as those of her family and friends.

At 32 hours a week, the IBM internship essentially made Illias a breadwinner for his family overnight, even if only for that summer.

“I never expected this early in my life to be paid that much,” Gomez told me during an interview in a second-floor conference room at Emmett J. Conrad High School, located in the city’s Vickery Meadow neighborhood, a densely populated area that is home to many immigrants and refugees from around the world.

“That money really helped out,” he said. When his mother, a building code officer for the city of Dallas, heard how much his salary was, “she was surprised, because she was like, ‘You’re close to making as much as I’m making.’ ”

Gomez landed his lucrative IBM internship through a program called P-TECH, which stands for Pathways in Technology Early College High School. Not only does P-TECH connect high school students to employment opportunities in promising fields, it also offers them the chance to take college courses while in high school and to earn credits toward both—a concept called dual enrollment. For Gomez it meant that, when he graduated this past May from Conrad High at the age of 18, he also had an associate’s degree in applied science in interactive simulation and game technology. He didn’t have to pay a dime. His mother was so inspired by Illias’s example that she decided to go back to college herself.

Dual enrollment is one of the most encouraging trends in higher education. Such programs have been shown to boost college attendance and reduce the time it takes for students to earn postsecondary degrees and vocational certificates. One of the abiding problems, however, is that students of color and from lower-income families tend to be underrepresented. Historically, dual enrollees have typically been whiter, wealthier, and already high achievers academically.

What makes P-TECH different is that, as a nonselective program, it serves lower-income minority students, many of whom weren’t doing well in school—like Gomez. The program does that in various innovative ways: by giving the high school students a new identity as college students capable of doing college work, by providing them with jobs in a field they’re passionate about, and by connecting them with businesses in search of an educated workforce. 

The success P-TECH has shown with students like Gomez has helped it spread rapidly—from a single school in Brooklyn, where it was launched in 2011, to 210 today throughout the United States (and many others in several countries, from Morocco to Singapore to Australia). 

But that growth pales in comparison to the potential interest. There are more than 21,000 public high schools in the United States, meaning that only about 1 percent of America’s high schools have the program. Even in Dallas, where 18 high schools participate in P-TECH, demand far outstrips supply. At Conrad High, for instance, there were twice as many applicants as there are spots at the school in the fall of 2022. 

One limiting factor, not surprisingly, is cost. High schools and colleges foot the bill for administering the program, and employers have to be persuaded to see the value in student interns’ work enough to come up with the money for their salaries. For the program to become available to all students, a national-level investment would help tremendously.

The program’s first school, known simply as P-TECH High School, launched in 2011 in Brooklyn as a collaboration between IBM, the New York City Department of Education, and the City University of New York (CUNY). It was the brainchild of Stanley Litow, then an executive at IBM, who designed P-TECH as a special education project for the company. Litow says he wanted to help improve students’ lifetime earnings and to address the “skills gap”—that is, the gulf between available jobs that require certain skills and the people who have the education necessary to fill those jobs.

“Those who go into the workforce with a postsecondary degree will earn $1 million more over their lives than those with only a high school diploma,” Litow says, using an oft-cited statistic about the value of a college degree.

There are more than 21,000 public high schools in the United States, and only about 1 percent of them offer the P-TECH program. A national-level investment could help spread it.

From the beginning, Litow aimed to create a model that could be broadly replicated everywhere. Seeing that some similar programs had limited their own growth by restricting admissions to high-achieving students, Litow decided to avoid that pitfall with P-TECH. “For that reason we resisted suggestions to restrict admissions to only the highest-achieving students and made admissions open to all,” Litow told me recently. “Had that not been done, its success would have been marginalized because it only worked for high achievers.”

In fall 2011, 104 students dual enrolled at P-TECH High in Brooklyn and the New York City College of Technology, better known as City Tech, which is part of CUNY. Among those students, 16 became the first to take a college course in summer 2012. They took math and computer science classes and worked toward associate’s degrees in computer systems and electromechanical engineering. 

By fall 2013, there were 82 students dual enrolled and in an average of five college courses.

President Barack Obama gave P-TECH a shout-out in his 2013 State of the Union address and visited the high school later that year, praising it as “a ticket into the middle class [that’s] available to everybody who’s willing to work for it.” He added, “And that’s the way it should be.”

Another world leader toured Brooklyn P-TECH the following year: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who became the first to expand the program outside the U.S. Since then, 26 nations have followed. 

The discussion to implement P-TECH in the Dallas Independent School District began in 2015 on the sixth floor of a Bank of America building in the city’s downtown. It was Michael Hinojosa’s second stint as superintendent of schools in Dallas. Two high schools that had previously been in danger of being taken over by the state had found success by adopting an early college model, but the district hadn’t seen fit to take up P-TECH—at least not yet.

Gathered around the table with Hinojosa were representatives from the county government, the rail system, the county hospital, and the Dallas County Community College District. As Hinojosa recalls, Joe May, now chancellor emeritus of the community college district, said, “Hey, we’ve heard of this P-TECH model and we’d like to see if you’d be interested in taking this thing to scale to put it at all your high schools.” 

“And I said, ‘Well, sounds interesting. Absolutely, let me do a little investigating,’ ” Hinojosa told me. “ ‘Let me talk to my team.’ ”

Hinojosa consulted with his central office staff and had them organize a trip to New York City to learn more about the original P-TECH. Based on their research, they altered the program slightly to fit Dallas students’ needs, adopting a four-year model rather than the six-year plan used in New York. Six months later, the Dallas school district launched eight P-TECH schools for the 2016–17 school year. It launched another 10 the following year. The school district set aside $25.5 million each year to set up the infrastructure for the program, and the community college ponied up the rest through tuition waivers totaling roughly $24 million a year. 

President Obama praised P-TECH in his 2013 State of the Union address as “a ticket into the middle class [that’s] available to everybody who’s willing to work for it.” 

Since 2016, the program has grown from eight schools to 18. In the 2020–21 school year, 5,835 students were on one of 36 “career pathways” that include health sciences, business administration and management, information technology, engineering, and hospitality management.

In 2021, 12th-grade Dallas P-TECH students had earned an average of roughly 56 dual credit hours apiece, along with good money from a growing roster of industry partners. “It just took off,” Hinojosa said. “It’s been nothing short of phenomenal.”

In order to become a success, Dallas P-TECH needed to build strong ties to business. Corporate partners don’t make financial contributions to P-TECH beyond paying interns’ wages. Instead, they offer mentoring and internships—or, as Hinojosa likes to say, some “love.” The Dallas school district started with about 25 industry partners, including AT&T and Microsoft, and now has close to 100, from Cisco Systems Inc. to PepsiCo/Frito-Lay. The roster includes several airlines and big banks and tech giants, a list that stands out for both the sheer number of industry partners and their diversity, which offers opportunities to kids with a wide range of interests.

Hinojosa told me students are landing great jobs at major U.S. companies. “American Airlines just hired 11 kids out of one high school making $58,000 a year with a 401k and free flights all over America,” he said. “And every one of them [is] Latino or African American.” 

So what’s the case for businesses to get involved?

In 2016, Ed Magnin, director of development at Magnin & Associates, a Dallas-based video game developer and a Conrad High School partner, joined Dallas P-TECH, motivated by the chance to help prepare and shape the workforce he needed. (Dallas College officials, for their part, say employers routinely make suggestions about what courses will benefit new hires.)

“If we can turn out students that have skills that are in demand in industry, that’s one reason for [companies] to volunteer to work with the schools,” Magnin told me. “It’s also something the Chamber of Commerce can sell to companies as to why they should move here: We have good schools and our students are earning college credit while they’re still in high school.”

All in the family: The associate’s degree that Illias earned while still in high school inspired his mom to go back to college. Credit: Ben Torres

Beyond that, Magnin said, businesses like his can better afford to pay fair wages when they’re hiring entry-level workers straight out of high school. Magnin & Associates takes on two interns per semester. One such intern was Gomez, who worked for Magnin as a tester finding bugs and glitches in video games before he landed the internship at IBM. 

Hinojosa observes that not all jobs require a four-year degree. P-TECH gives an advantage to high school graduates who might struggle to earn an associate’s degree if they had to do it on their own as adults rather than during high school.

“These industry partners are so happy with this because now they see a ready workforce,” Hinojosa said. “And now they’re thinking about, ‘Do you really need a full bachelor’s degree to work at American Airlines or Accenture?’ Because these kids can do all these things that they never had any idea they could do.”

Remarkably, in 2021, about a third of students who earned an associate’s degree that year in Dallas had failed their eighth-grade exam. “They shouldn’t have even been in high school,” said Hinojosa, who completed his last year with the district in June 2022. According to a recent study of the program, such turnaround stories are typical for P-TECH students. An April 2022 evaluation by MDRC—a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy research organization—found that P-TECH schools in New York City were “particularly successful at helping students at risk of underperforming in high school achieve important academic milestones.”

The evaluation found that, “in particular, [P-TECH] increased dual enrollment for this group of students, which may be significant since prior research has found that students who take college courses while in high school are more likely to both enroll in college and complete postsecondary education degrees.” MDRC plans to release a final report on P-TECH in New York, including a cost study, in 2023.

Statistics show that Illias Gomez has plenty of company among his fellow high schoolers who benefited from P-TECH. Of all the Dallas high school students who got two-year degrees or earned 60 dual credit hours in 2020–21, 71 percent were P-TECH students. 

“This past year in the pandemic, 910 kids—actually 910 is 10 percent of our senior class—graduated from high school with an associate’s degree for free,” Hinojosa told me. “No debt.”

Today, much like Gomez, not only are Dallas high school students earning college degrees along with their high school diplomas, but they’re also making good money while still in high school. In summer 2021, more than 400 Dallas public high school students got internships in which they earned an average of $17.50 per hour. Collectively, they earned more than $1.6 million, Dallas school data shows.

“The cool thing about this is our students are saying, ‘I’m earning more than my mom. I don’t know what to do with this money,’ ” says Sibu McNeal, director of workplace learning at Dallas ISD P-TECH and Early College Programs. “These are good problems that we’re having now.”

Other school districts are looking at these results and following suit. In May 2022, on a visit to Conrad High, I met a group of education leaders from Chicago who had come to learn more about how they could implement P-TECH back in the Windy City. The group included Pedro Martinez, the chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools. Martinez told me he sees P-TECH in Dallas as a “very, very strong model” and he hopes to soon pilot the program at 10 to 20 schools in Chicago. The city already has one P-TECH school, Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy, but Chicago’s educational leaders are thinking of greatly expanding the program. Martinez said, “I think this is the future of education.”

Despite the interest from Chicago, P-TECH is still a relatively rare model on the American educational landscape. Of the nation’s 15.3 million high school students, only about 1.5 million are in dual enrollment programs, according to researchers at Teachers College, Columbia University. Less than 10 percent of those students are in P-TECH. Of those 1.5 million dual enrollment students, the vast majority—particularly Black, Hispanic, and low-income students—do not earn anywhere near enough credits to graduate from high school with an associate’s degree the way Gomez did.

“In every state where we’ve looked at this, the average number of dual enrollment credits students take before they graduate is small—usually around 6 to 9 credits or 2 to 3 courses,” says Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College. There aren’t reliable statistics for the average number of credits earned by P-TECH students—in part because the length of the program varies across the country—but in P-TECH’s birthplace, New York City, students are earning an average of 32 credits from State University of New York branches as they move from high school to college.

In fact, Litow said P-TECH should have become more prevalent in Chicago years ago. It’s not for lack of trying—this won’t be the city’s first attempt at implementing the program. A district official says five early college high schools were established to “emulate” P-TECH in 2012, but Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy—a school that Time magazine praised in 2014 as “The School That Will Get You a Job”—was the only one that managed to stay true to the model. 

Hinojosa told me Dallas P-TECH students are landing great jobs out of high school at companies like American Airlines making $58,000 a year, “and every one of them [is] Latino or African American.”

Different factors, such as changes in leadership, can sometimes make it difficult to bring even successful programs to scale, Litow said. But more than that, P-TECH could use federal support. Right now, a patchwork of local school systems have adopted the model, each figuring out on their own how to find funding and adapt the program to the needs of their communities. One idea Litow would like to see: Expand eligibility for Pell Grants so they cover dual enrolled students, not just traditional college students. That move alone would “immediately” lead to more schools opening because it would take the tuition cost burden away from states and localities, Litow said. Another, similar, move would be to open up federal work study grants, which currently pay 70 to 75 percent of the wages that employers pay to students. That would bring in more industry partners to P-TECH programs. Another would be for the U.S. Labor Department to fund apprenticeships for more high school students. 

All three of those changes would not eliminate costs for states and school districts, Litow said, but they would introduce a more efficient cost-sharing model that would help the program to expand. And over the long term, he predicted, it would save money by reducing the need for remedial courses, increasing college completion, and saving tax dollars by keeping graduates out of the social safety net.

During their first two years, P-TECH students at Conrad High attend classes at their school that are taught by professors from the nearby Dallas College Richland Campus. Illias Gomez said one of his most memorable classes was a project development class taught by the adjunct game design professor Paul Lachowicz, who taught students the ins and outs of using Unreal Engine, an open 3D creation tool that people can use to make video games and movies. Gomez spent hours playing around in the engine under Lachowicz’s eye, building worlds—and problem-solving skills—in the classroom.

Conrad’s upper-level students spend more and more time independently taking college courses. Gomez told me the experience taught him important lessons about time management. “No one’s telling you, ‘You have to go to this class. You have to go to that class,’ ” he said. “It’s like, you know what time your class starts. You have to be there for your grade, your attendance, because even though you’re not paying for it, you’re having that opportunity to have that class for free that could cost thousands of dollars as an adult.” The IBM job, meanwhile, was a sweet deal for reasons that transcend how much it paid. Unlike his restaurant host job or the days when he did yard work in his neighborhood to make money, Gomez didn’t have to leave home.

“It was like working a real office job, but from the comfort of our own home,” he said. “Like it was almost a workshop. It’s like a giant workshop where we just learned different things about how it is to be a consultant, as well as problem solving for a company.”

Gomez plans to take his studies in gaming beyond the next two years at the University of North Texas. He has his eyes on Southern Methodist University. There, he hopes to join the Guildhall, which bills itself as a “premier graduate-level video game development education program in the United States.”

Gomez has a keen sense of the role that P-TECH played in positioning him where he is today.

“P-TECH is one of those things where you look at it now and it may not be so big to you, but later on it means pretty much the world, because that’s when you realize that you not only saved yourself and your family a lot of money, you saved yourself a lot of time,” he told me. “And so it’s one of the things where there’s going to be some sacrifices, but those sacrifices are what help you become the grown young adult that you will be.”  

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Jamaal Abdul-Alim serves as education editor at The Conversation. His articles have appeared in the Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, where he worked as a senior staff writer covering federal education policy.