Career Pathways: Graduation is No Longer the Endgame

More American students than ever are graduating from high school and going on to college or some other postsecondary education. Two-thirds of our high school graduates enroll in two- or four-year programs in the fall after graduation. 

Although colleges award several million bachelor’s and associate degrees, only 59 percent of students attending four-year colleges will earn their degrees within six years. And just 29 percent of those attending community colleges will finish within three years.

And as for finding work right after high school graduation, a 2015 Achieve survey on college and career preparedness found that more than three-quarters of employers reported gaps in recent high school graduates’ preparation for typical jobs in their companies; about half said the gaps were large.

Educators, employers, and policy makers see the problem: the old either/or model of college-prep or vocational education is simply out of sync with the needs of 21st-century America.

Career pathways offer a way out of this bind. They help high school students (and even some middle school students) gain secondary and postsecondary education, training, and support services while they acquire marketable skills, industry-recognized credentials, and eventually good jobs. Career pathway systems combine rigorous academics with workplace experience using the latest technologies.

Not just a repackaged version of the old “voc-ed,” this system helps students identify clear paths forward after high school. A diploma isn’t the endgame; it’s a step toward a meaningful career. 

What does a career pathway in high school look like?

A high school student hoping to become an architect can begin building foundational knowledge with such courses as architectural design, construction management, and electrical technology along with traditional academic courses like English and biology. Her algebra and trigonometry courses would incorporate examples and applications related to architecture.

A culinary arts student could receive hands-on learning in both his classroom and in a local restaurant to learn about cooking, nutrition, food safety and sanitation, and restaurant management.

Providing this seamless system of education and training involves close collaboration among districts, schools, postsecondary institutions, and employers. Together these stakeholders must decide what students need to learn in the classroom and in the workplace to earn a certificate or be prepared for advanced learning.

Coordination is key. Standards, curriculum, assessment, work-based experience, and industry certification requirements must be aligned so that students graduate with the academic, technical and workplace skills they will need.

To develop sustainable career pathway systems, districts and regions need state help. California and several of its districts offer examples of such as the California Partnership Academies (CPA) and Linked Learning District Initiative.

The CPA model is a three-year, high school-based program that enrolls students in small group-learning programs that integrate academic and career and technical education, business partnerships, mentoring, and internships.

Linked Learning brings together rigorous college preparatory academics with career-based education and work-based learning opportunities.

California recently contributed state funds to both through its California Career Pathways Trust, a $500 million fund for competitive grants to career pathways programs.

Districts and regions need state support to develop sustainable career pathways systems.  States can help by:

  • Identifying and engaging such key stakeholders as policymakers, state education agencies, businesses, secondary and postsecondary educators and staff, and other training and support services providers
  • Getting familiar with the state’s current career-readiness and workforce-development policies, programs, and funding streams
  • Understanding local, regional, and statewide labor force needs and projections
  • Creating industry-specific career pathways including course development and sequencing, work-based opportunities, and relevant postsecondary options
  • Establishing ways to evaluate these initiatives, aiming for continuous improvement in career pathways programs

(To learn more, visit AIR’s College and Career Readiness and Success Center and see its free suite of resources called Designing a Career Pathways System: A Framework for State Education Agencies.)

Jessica Giffin is a researcher at AIR and the communication lead for the College and Career Readiness and Success Center.