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The K-12 guide to college and career readiness


Learn what college and career readiness (CCR) looks like for schools and districts, how its definition is evolving to encompass the varying needs and interests of today’s students, and how you can drive CCR in your community.

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K-12 leadership guide

8 priorities for districts in 2023


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8 priorities for 2023


The world that today’s high school students will enter upon graduation is very different from the one their educators are used to. Both academics and the workplace are undergoing rapid and profound change for a broad range of reasons, including: 

  • Technological advances 
  • An increasingly competitive economy
  • Disruptive global events

In response, educators are changing their approach to college and career readiness. Traditionally, college and career readiness consisted of preparing students for standardized tests and facilitating college and career application processes. Recognizing that such efforts are no longer sufficient, schools are expanding their college and career readiness efforts to prepare students with the skills to flourish in a world of rapid change and uncertainty. 

What is career and college readiness?

Simply put, career and college readiness refers to the ability of students to thrive after high school. Definitions of college and career readiness vary from state to state, but there is widespread consensus that, in a rapidly changing and uncertain world, approaches to college and career readiness must expand beyond its traditional role of preparing students for standardized tests and providing support as they apply for jobs or college admissions.

→ Download now: 8 priorities for districts in 2023

This modern approach to college and career readiness is “multifaceted,” according to the American Institutes for Research’s College and Career Readiness and Success Center, encompassing not just academic readiness, but also “knowledge, abilities, and dispositions that impact academic achievement.”

While definitions of college and career readiness vary, there is general consensus around the importance of the following skills: 

  • Written and verbal communication
  • The ability to think critically
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Financial literacy
  • Time management
  • Stress management

[READ: “What is college and career readiness? Pointers for educators]

From college and career readiness to life readiness

In recognition of the disconnect between traditional college and career readiness and the growing need to provide students with 21st-century skills, the AASA, the School Superintendent’s organization, launched the Redefining Ready! initiative. 

As Dr. David Schuler, superintendent of Illinois’s Township High School District 214, writes, the Redefining Ready! initiative asks critical questions not just about college and career readiness but about life readiness, including:

  • Will students leave high school with a growth mindset? 
  • Do they have the grit and perseverance to achieve their goals in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges? 
  • Do they have a sense of purpose that motivates them as they move to college or the workforce and beyond?

In line with the changing understanding of the concept, New York state’s definition of college and career readiness exemplifies the more holistic approach educators are taking. In addition to academic, admissions, career, and financial readiness, New York’s definition explicitly supports personal and social readiness, including “the ability to set educational goals, make and monitor progress toward them, and create relationships with peers and adults that support academic success.” 

By seeing career and college readiness as part of the broader path of life readiness, schools have the opportunity to foster an interconnected set of essential skills students need to become successful and meet their goals beyond the narrow bounds of work and academics. 

The wider benefits of college and career readiness

In addition to the obvious goal of preparing students for life after high school, the potential benefits of a successful college and career readiness approach are wide-ranging, research shows. 

Improved academic outcomes

When students can identify career aspirations, they are actually more likely to succeed academically, according to an article by the vice president of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career. “These students are more likely to graduate from high school, earn more money, and be more involved in their community,” the study finds. 

[READ: “5 questions with Dr. Maria Ortiz of Newark Public Schools”]

Increased equity

A Learning Policy Institute study found that well-designed college and career readiness pathways can have a significantly positive impact on students from historically marginalized communities. “The 4-year college-going rate for African Americans in these pathways was 12 percentage points higher than peers not participating in pathways,” the study finds. In addition, students with low achievement scores in earlier grades “made significantly better academic progress when they participated in pathways in high school,” write the report’s authors.

A stronger, more equitable economy

An article from the US Chamber of Commerce reports labor shortages among both entry-level and more seasoned workers. In other words, the United States economy regularly produces more employment opportunities than there are people willing and able to take advantage of those opportunities. “Good-paying jobs are left unfilled, and students aren’t ready for the demands of college,” a Foundation for Educational Excellence report concludes. By producing graduates who are college- and career-ready, not only will more individuals prosper, but so will the entire economy. 


Being at the forefront of education involves more than ensuring students are getting top grades.

From teacher support to college and career readiness, learn the 8 priorities for districts in 2023—with examples from the field, additional data, and evidence-based strategies for creating a brighter future in K-12.

Evidence-based strategies to support college and career readiness

As school districts around the country broaden the definition of college and career readiness beyond test scores and college and job application processes, they cannot rely on a single, standalone initiative. In 21st-century schools, college and career readiness is a holistic process that can encompass a wide range of strategies.

Embed college and career readiness practices early and often

More and more research indicates that career-connected learning experiences in the middle grades are linked to a positive self-concept in student attitudes to their occupational prospects. “It has become increasingly clear that college and career readiness efforts can and should include middle school to have a stronger impact,” states a recent study on college and career readiness initiatives for students with disabilities in the middle grades

Such future-ready skills and attitudes are not something that can or should be limited to targeted high school programs. Instead, schools should consider embedding opportunities to learn these skills across educational offerings, both within and beyond the classroom—and beginning at least in the middle grades.

[READ: “How Val Verde Unified School District helps students self-advocate for success with Paper”]

Focus on 21st-century skills

According to a widely cited glossary of education terms, 21st-century skills include not just knowledge and abilities, but also work habits and character traits. While there is no single definition of 21st-century skills, most educators and employers agree on the following: 

  • Critical thinking
  • Research skills and practices
  • Creativity
  • Perseverance and self-direction 
  • Oral and written communication
  • Leadership, teamwork, and collaboration
  • Information and communication technology literacy
  • Civic, ethical, and social-justice literacy
  • Economic and financial literacy
  • Global awareness and multicultural literacy
  • Scientific literacy and reasoning
  • Environmental and conservation literacy
  • Health and wellness literacy

[READ: “What does 21st-century learning look like for our schools?”]

Prioritize social-emotional and other soft skills

As the list of 21st-century skills makes clear, social-emotional, or “soft,” skills are considered critical to success academically and in the workforce. Studies consistently show that student-centered learning practices foster these skills, leading to both short-term improvement in testing and greater success in post-secondary study. There are a wide range of ways strategies to support these skills, including: 

  • Project-based learning. Known as PBL, project-based learning  has been shown to “increase student ownership and agency,” according to a 2018 report about evidence for student-centered learning
  • Flipped classrooms. The flipped classroom that introduces content though independent work rather than during class time can increase key college and career readiness skills, including student agency and collaboration. 
  • Blended learning. By integrating virtual and face-to-face learning environments, blended learning can encourage “self-efficacy and perseverance to solve problems at their own pace,” explains educator and researcher Constance Bahn in an article about blended learning in student-centered classrooms. It can be particularly effective for students who are historically disadvantaged. 

Modern college and career readiness initiatives

In addition to standardized test preparation and high school career and college counseling programs, schools are more aggressively adopting more proactive college and career readiness initiatives. 

“We have been reconfiguring our schools to not just be nine through 12, but seven through 12, to give us a head start on preparing students for college pathways and career exploration,” says Dr. Lindsa Mcintyre, secondary superintendent at Boston Public Schools. These efforts include focusing on funding pre-AP classwork for seventh, eighth, and ninth graders, support for International Baccalaureate (IB) prep, career and technical education, and dual enrollment with local colleges. 

Programs designed to directly support college and career readiness include: 

  • Work-based learning and mentorship opportunities. “High-quality, work-based learning experiences are highly valuable both for students and employers,” according to a Students Can’t Wait report. Such experiences are linked to decreased dropout rates and greater success in the workforce, according to a Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education brief
  • Personal opportunity plans (POPs). A POP is a “student-centered and student-directed process and a set of documents that maximize students’ academic, personal, college and/or career development and fosters success in school and life,” according to an Engaging Schools report. POPs offer an effective tool for closing the gap between students’ aspirations and the achievement of goals that are both challenging and realistic. 
  • College-level coursework. College-level coursework in high school—AP classes, IB coursework, and dual enrollment in secondary and postsecondary classes—“improves the likelihood of students entering postsecondary education, continuing in college, and acquiring degrees,” claims a Jobs for the Future report. In addition, underrepresented students who take an AP or IB course in high school are almost 20% more likely to persist in a four-year college, according to research from PowerSchool
  • Career and technical education (CTE). By combining academic work with occupational know-how, modern CTE programs provide students with structured pathways toward post-high school careers, while also preparing them for post-secondary study if they choose. According to a report by the U.S. Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, CTE programs don’t just provide work skills. CTE-involved students actually graduate from high school more often than their non-CTE counterparts. 

[READ: 5 questions with Denver Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Alex Marrero]

Future-ready learning that supports college and career readiness

As research indicates, 21st-century schools can no longer treat college and career readiness as a standalone initiative. Instead, they need to embed opportunities for students to acquire future-ready skills through a wide range of activities—and extend them beyond the classroom and regular school hours.

[READ: “College and career readiness activities for your students”]

Such opportunities can encourage students to feel confident in their abilities, support their ongoing individual development, and nurture lifelong learning.

College and career writing support

Written communications are key to securing employment and/or admission to college.  Teachers and college and career planning advisors can support students by offering feedback and coaching to students as they write various college and career documents, including:

  • College application essays
  • Résumés
  • Cover letters
  • Business letters
  • Emails

[READ: “3 ways to prepare high school students for college writing standards”]

Insight into acquisition of future-ready learning

Educators and administrators should continuously seek access to actionable analytics about student interactions. With such insights, educators can quickly: 

  • Identify student needs. Proactively discover areas requiring supplemental support, whether individually or collectively. 
  • Evaluate curriculum effectiveness. Understand which content areas are effective based on the kind of help most requested across sites.
  • Measure impacts. Track who is using the service and understand how usage relates to target outcomes.

[READ: “How Paper’s ESS helped one district increase graduation rates”]

Equitable access to tutoring and other educational services

Too often, students from historically marginalized communities receive social cues that engagement in continued formal education is not for them. The right school-sponsored tutoring programs counteract this messaging by providing all students with ample opportunities to engage with tutors trained both to encourage them and meet them where they are. 

In the past, tutoring programs have generally taken place in person and on school grounds, either during school hours or after school. While effective, these programs have proven hard to scale because of staffing, scheduling, and logistical challenges. 

Even when available, these programs fail to reach many students—such as socio-economically disadvantaged students who lack alternate transportation options and/or work either inside or outside the home. 

“Not every student can stay after school with their teachers for extra help,” says Dr. Tracy Curley, Chief Academic Officer at Fall River Public Schools in Massachusetts. “Not everyone has a sibling, parent, or friend that can help them better understand their biology or pre-calculus assignment, or that can proofread a college essay." 

Inquiry-based learning opportunities

“Education should prepare learners for lifelong learning through development of 21st century skills such as digital literacy, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and creativity,” concludes a University of Hawaii study.

To support lifelong learning, the inquiry-based model of learning has been shown to be particularly effective in developing the social-emotional skills required of lifelong learning, including: 

  • Metacognition. By asking questions rather than providing answers, Paper’s inquiry-based approach is effective in supporting metacognition—encouraging them to become aware of their own thoughts and the patterns in which they occur. As Vanderbilt University reports, studies show that metacognitive practices “increase students’ abilities to transfer or adapt their learning to new contexts and tasks”—a critical skill for students preparing to enter a world of rapid change. 
  • Self-advocacy. Self-advocacy is the ability for students to assess and identify the help they need, identify resources that can help, and speak up and communicate their needs. “Teaching self-advocacy involves helping students gain the tools to navigate their own lives,” states an article about special education and self-advocacy from Lamar University. Paper’s inquiry-based learning model fosters self-advocacy by asking students to identify and articulate their needs to tutors. 

[VIEW: Director of K-12 Education at Val Verde Unified School District explains how Paper's ESS helps students take ownership of their learning]

College and career readiness: Turning crisis into opportunity

The decline in standardized test scores, graduation rates, and engagement in the wake of COVID-19 are pressing concerns for educators everywhere. While there is no single cure, a broader definition of college and career readiness—and a commitment to embedding these practices across learning experiences—provides real promise for today’s students. 

By taking a more holistic approach to college and career readiness—including social-emotional learning and essential life skills—schools can simultaneously enhance long-term student success while meeting other core goals, from higher graduation rates to more equitable outcomes within their schools and across the wider communities they serve. 


Being at the forefront of education involves more than ensuring students are getting top grades.

From teacher support to college and career readiness, learn the 8 priorities for districts in 2023—with examples from the field, additional data, and evidence-based strategies for creating a brighter future in K-12.

Download the guide

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