Academic Planning in the Age of Career Readiness

"Career Readiness" is more than just a buzzword in K-12 education. Of the 50 state-wide ESSA plans, 49 of them include specific tracking indicators for Career Readiness. But how in fact does this differ from college readiness (and what does it mean for academic planning)?

At its core, Career Readiness simply comes down to ensuring that every students' educational experience will lead to a successful career outcome. And rightfully so...

As a society, we talk a lot about the student debt problem; however, we give less attention to the fact that less than 60% of students who enroll in a 4-year institution will earn a degree within their next six years.

Additionally, 43% of college graduates are underemployed in their first job, which means they are not being adequately utilized in terms of skills, experience and availability to work. So if the best outcome for students attending college is essentially a gamble on being included in that 60% of students who graduate within a 6-year period, to then face a 43% likelihood of underemployment, it seems inevitable that student debt will only continue to grow.

Let me be clear -- I am not in any way saying college is not a valid, useful path for students. I loved and am grateful for my own college experience and think it is a great path for many, many students. However, I also believe that students need to be intentional about postsecondary decision-making and follow the path that is most likely to lead to successful career placement and high quality of life for that unique student.

To achieve this, we must introduce K-12 students to the vast field of career opportunities, especially those of which they may have very little awareness. Then, our role as educators, mentors, and advisors is to help them connect tomorrow's careers to today's academic options.  This connection cannot be brought to life by simply sharing thousands of written descriptions of careers after they take an assessment (that they usually skim through). Instead, it must be delivered through engaging and impactful career exploration that then informs smarter, more thought out academic planning and course selection.

Interactive exploration here is key because if we want to expose students to pathways they are not already considering, text-only reading is not getting it done. Yet most career content available for middle and high school students heavily, if not solely, relies on text. Extensive research has gone into the impact of visual content and video content on student engagement, learning, and retention. Specifically:

Visual aids (in contrast with just text) are shown to stimulate thinking, improve learning environments, and increase personal understanding for students.

The brain remembers and recalls visual content better than text and visual illustrations (versus just text) increase student learning 98% of the time.

Active career exploration is the foundation of effective academic planning — not only is it needed for career readiness alignment, but it also can be the source of higher equity and engagement within academic planning.

Students have taken career assessments for decades, yet far too often students’ educational trajectories are not leading to successful career outcomes. We see this in underemployment rates, student debt statistics, and even school and college dropout rates.

This ineffective cycle starts in K-12 education. Often times students move through academic planning exercises only looking at the next step and working forward one term at a time, rather than being taught to think and plan bigger picture. It is also important that we lower the opportunity cost of exploration and planning so we do not pigeonhole students into outcomes based on decisions they made before they were ready (we’ll be covering this more in-depth in a follow-up post).

For instance, during varying points in high school, some students decide they want to go to college. Then, based on their grades and transcript, they select not where they want to go but rather where they can get in. Instead of aligning school choice to intended career outcomes or interests, they focus on where they can get in first, and often identify the ‘what’ they want to major or focus on as an afterthought.

Other students decide that college is not an option for them.  Their decision may be due to cost, family history, awareness, or any variety of other factors. They then pick courses and diploma goals based on the fact that they are not a “college bound” kid, but there isn’t a consideration for what comes next for them after the cap and gown are hung up.

What if instead, students began the process by authentically exploring all career paths we have to offer and then made their academic and future plans through this context? Briefly, here’s how that process might look:

Through interactive career pathway exploration, students discover career pathways that they often had no idea existed.  Next, students identify how much education they need to pursue their desired career path.

This process offers K-12 education three key benefits:

  1. Equity/Equality — instead of students creating academic plans forward-looking based on their pre-established biases (i.e. by thinking they have to go to college or, conversely, that college is not an option for them), they simply start off with finding a career path that is best-suited for them. It levels the playing field for all students and establishes the same process for all students, regardless of trajectory. It lessens the distinction between ‘college-bound’ and ‘non college-bound’ youth, creating instead only ‘career-bound’ students.

  2. Efficiency — when academic planning starts with students identifying their immediate next step, this requires more differentiation from the start and thus is not as efficient. For instance, students who think they are going to college start focusing on finding a college and students who think they are not, immediately start focusing on CTE programs or something similar. When you work backwards, the initial phase for ALL students is exactly the same: interactively exploring career paths and then working backwards to build an academic plan. The differentiation does not happen until later down the road, thus increasing efficiency for districts by keeping all students in the same process for longer.

    1. Note: this also positively impacts the equity/equality aspect, since all students have the same starting point and processes.

In the words of Booker T. Washington:

“Too often, it seems to me… [in educational work] people yield to the temptation of doing that which was done a hundred years before, or is being done in other communities a thousand miles away. The temptation often is to run each individual through a certain educational mold, regardless of the condition of the subject or the end to be accomplished.”

By leveraging authentic career exploration as a foundation for academic planning, we can help ensure every student pursues an education that is aligned to the career outcome they want in their own life, regardless of pre-existing biases, socio-economic status, or educational molds.

Part 2 of this blog post will cover how to facilitate career exploration and awareness in a way that does not pigeon hole students into outcomes based on premature decisions. Stay tuned for that post!

P.S. - There’s a lot going on here at MajorClarity. This semester we launched our Elementary product, Employer connections platform, and are about to launch a redesigned v3.0 of the whole platform (with a much more robust student portfolio)! If you’re interested in hearing more, shoot us a note at