The K-12 guide to career and college readiness
Learn what career and college 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.
Take the K-12 district assessment for career and college readiness to see how your district stacks up with current benchmarks.
According to 2023 data collected by Pollfish on behalf of Paper™, roughly one-quarter of respondents felt the educational system prepares learners adequately for the “real world”—and nearly all respondents across six states said high schools should better prepare students for life beyond school walls.
This data might not be surprising: After all, the world that today’s high school students will enter upon graduation is very different from the one their educators inherited. Both academics and the workplace are undergoing rapid and profound change for a broad range of reasons, including:
An increasingly competitive economy
Disruptive global events
Shifting labor needs
In response, educators are changing their approach to career and college readiness. Traditionally, this process consisted of preparing students for standardized tests and facilitating career and college application processes. Recognizing that such efforts are no longer sufficient, however, schools are expanding their career and college readiness efforts to help students acquire the soft skills and awareness needed to flourish in a changing world.
Many schools are also moving beyond leading students through a static array of postgraduation pathways—departing from the “college-for-all” mentality of the previous decade. Instead, districts are building student-led, adult-supported processes that encourage continuous career exploration and aligned academic decision-making.
What is career and college readiness?
Simply put, career and college readiness refers to students’ ability to thrive after high school. Definitions of career and college readiness vary from state to state, but there is widespread consensus that, in a rapidly changing and uncertain world, approaches to career and college readiness must expand beyond traditional expectations.
According to the College and Career Readiness and Success Center at the American Institutes for Research, a modern approach to career and college readiness is “multifaceted,” encompassing not just academic readiness, but also the “knowledge, abilities, and dispositions that impact academic achievement.”
As a result, CCR often includes the following skills:
Written and verbal communication
Evolving from a college-first focus
Although four-year degrees from colleges and universities have historically been framed as the preferred pathway for high school students to follow after graduation, many of today’s learners and their loved ones are demanding more options.
Data from the ECMC Group suggests that as of early 2022, 51% of Generation Z teenagers are interested in securing a bachelor’s degree—a number that dropped 20 percentage points from May 2020. And it seems their parents are on the same page: In a report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Gallup on building pathways from learning to work, 46% of parents said that in the absence of any obstacles or limitations, they’d prefer their child pursue an option other than obtaining a four-year degree.
To be sure, college is still a valid choice for many students; research on lifetime earnings from The Hamilton Project and The Brookings Institution suggests that at career peak, those with bachelor’s degrees have median annual earnings of nearly double that of individuals who have high school degrees or GEDs as their highest level of education.
It’s critical to be mindful of historic barriers marginalized students face in pursuing higher education, but alternative postgraduation options can still provide a legitimate pathway for all learners. This is especially true given predicted labor needs, high college tuition costs, and the increasing quality of local trade schools.
Likewise, it’s crucial for high school learners to discern whether their life plans or career goals require college—and for districts to provide more opportunities for students to explore careers so important job decisions don’t happen after learners take out costly student loans.
With these changing attitudes in mind (and with exposure to noncollege pathways lagging across U.S. districts, according to career and college readiness data from MajorClarity by Paper), it’s up to schools to provide more exposure to postsecondary options.
From career and college readiness to life readiness
In recognition of the disconnect between traditional career and college readiness and the growing need to provide students with 21st-century skills, AASA, The School Superintendents Association, launched the Redefining Ready! initiative.
As Dr. David Schuler, superintendent of Illinois’ Township High School District 214, writes, the Redefining Ready! initiative asks critical questions not just about career and college readiness but also 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 this concept, New York State’s definition of career and college readiness exemplifies the more holistic approach educators are taking. In addition to academic (success in college-level classes that secure credits toward degrees awarded by technical, community, or four-year colleges or universities), admissions (ability to meet postsecondary admissions requirements), 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 toward 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 career and college readiness
In addition to the obvious goal of preparing students for life after high school, the potential benefits of a successful career and college readiness approach are wide-ranging, research shows.
Improved academic outcomes
Paper’s proprietary data solidifies the link between robust career and college readiness and potential academic performance: More than 70% of survey participants say clarifying the links between high school courses and potential jobs would increase their motivation to succeed in a class.
A Learning Policy Institute study found that well-designed career and college readiness pathways can have a significantly positive impact on students from historically marginalized communities. “The four-year college-going rate for African Americans in these pathways was 12 percentage points higher than peers not participating in pathways,” the study finds.
This benefit extends beyond historically marginalized groups as well: 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 healthier economy
An article from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports labor shortages among both entry-level and more seasoned workers. In other words, some industries and sectors produce more employment opportunities than there are people willing and able to take advantage of those opportunities. By producing graduates who are college- and career-ready, not only will more individuals prosper, but so will the entire economy.
Lowered opportunity costs
A well-designed future readiness program may also help lower the opportunity cost of postsecondary decision-making.
When districts frame college as a natural extension of the K-12 experience, students may enroll in dedicated degree programs while using their time in higher education to learn about and uncover their true career aspirations—a potentially inefficient process. By instead allowing students access to career exploration in middle school and more dedicated career readiness initiatives in high school, students can line up their academics with their interests, thereby lowering the stakes of their postsecondary decisions.
Of course, career exploration is a long-lasting, iterative, and deeply individual process; learners will naturally discover new passions and outgrow old ones. But the more students engage in regular career exploration in K-12—from early career exposure to work-based learning opportunities—the wiser and more cost-effective their future planning will be.
The landscape of career and college readiness is evolving at breakneck speed. Created by a coalition of leading educational organizations, this career and college readiness benchmark initiative is an open-source project providing much-needed transparency and data to drive the future of postsecondary success.
Evidence-based strategies to support career and college readiness
Just as schools must broaden their definitions of career and college readiness, they must also expand initiatives to meet the now multifaceted objectives. In 21st-century schools, this is a holistic process that can encompass a wide range of strategies.
Embed career and college readiness practices early and often
Although career preparedness is still primarily tied to high school, more and more research indicates that career-connected learning experiences in the middle grades are linked to positive student attitudes toward 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 career and college readiness initiatives for students with disabilities in the middle grades.
This comes as no surprise, as middle school is often when students make decisions about courses and academic pathways that should be aligned with their life goals. Strengthening that connection is a critical part of building life-ready skills and lowering the stakes of postsecondary decision-making.
In turn, developing future-ready skills and attitudes is not something that can or should be limited to targeted high school programs. Rather, 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.
Of course, districts can take this one step further, embedding the basic building blocks needed for robust career and college readiness into the curriculum starting in the elementary years. From developing skills in reading, communication, and teamwork earlier on to learning how to create résumés, apply to college, or earn microcredentials later, there’s an age-appropriate task any K-12 student can take on that ties back to these efforts.
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. Although there is no single definition of 21st-century skills, most educators and employers agree that they include the following:
Research skills and practices
Perseverance and self-direction
Oral and written communication
Leadership, teamwork, and collaboration
Additionally, education leaders generally agree that 21st-century skills also include literacy in topics such as:
Information and communication technology
Civics, ethics, and social justice
Economics and finance
Global and cultural awareness
Science and reasoning
The environment and conservation
Health and wellness
Prioritize soft skills
As the aforementioned list of 21st-century skills makes clear, 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 postsecondary study. There are a wide range of ways to support these skills, including:
Flipped classrooms: These types of classrooms introduce content through independent work rather than during class time and can increase key career and college 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 [students’] own pace,” explains educator and researcher Constance Bahn in an article about blended learning in student-centered classrooms. This approach can be particularly effective for students from historically disadvantaged populations.
Inverted career fairs: In this reversed type of career fair exercise, students promote themselves by carrying out demonstrations of their skills. Local employers can stop by their booths to find students who might be a good match for an internship.
Modern career and college readiness initiatives
In addition to standardized test preparation and high school career and college counseling programs, schools are adopting more proactive career and college 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 career and college 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.
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.
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 postsecondary study if they choose. According to data on CTE participation from the U.S. Department of Education, CTE programs don’t just provide work skills relevant to their area of study. In fact, CTE-involved students actually graduate from high school more often than their non-CTE counterparts.
Future-ready learning that supports career and college readiness
As research indicates, future-focused schools can no longer treat career and college readiness as a standalone initiative. Instead, they need to embed opportunities for students to acquire future-ready skills in a wide range of activities—and extend these initiatives beyond the classroom and regular school hours.
Such opportunities can encourage students to feel confident in their abilities, support their ongoing individual development, and nurture lifelong learning.
Prioritizing tangible experiences over information
Students are hungry for real-world career experiences. But more often than not, they have more information about postsecondary options than chances to experience them.
With this in mind, building experiences where students can interact directly with postsecondary pathways and careers is critical. Examples of this may include work-based learning, as mentioned earlier, as well as career simulations, interactive video content that runs learners through a typical day on the job, and opportunities to secure microcredentials. No matter the activity, these types of experiences should be built to offer students a good look at what it’s like to be involved in a certain career or to train for a specific role.
Career and college writing support
Written communications are key to securing employment or admission to college. Teachers and career and college planning advisers can support students by offering feedback and coaching to students as they write various documents, including:
College application essays
Tying career goals to academic planning
Mandated or strongly encouraged by many U.S. states, individualized learning plans (ILPs) can be a foundational piece of any career readiness program.
ILPs, which are sometimes referred to as personal opportunity plans, are 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.
These plans help students identify their career interests and learning styles and then connect them to aligned academic courses and postsecondary pathways. In short, ILPs not only help districts strengthen their postsecondary supports, but also increase student ownership in their academic journeys—closing the gap between students’ aspirations and the achievement of goals that are both challenging and realistic.
Insight into the acquisition of future-ready learning
Educators and administrators should continuously seek access to actionable analytics surrounding where students need support. 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.
Equitable access to tutoring and other educational services
Too often, students from historically marginalized communities receive social cues that engagement in continued education or training programs is not for them. The right school-sponsored tutoring programs counteract this messaging by providing all students with ample opportunities to engage with academic support that can both encourage them and meet them where they are.
One common example of this kind of academic support is tutoring programs. In the past, however, tutoring has 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. And even when available, traditional tutoring fails to reach many students—such as socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack alternate transportation options or work either inside or outside the home.
“Our students have sports and activities after school, and many also balance after-school jobs, volunteering, and family obligations,” says Dr. Joseph S. Piccirillo, superintendent at New Jersey’s Hopatcong Borough School District. “This has resulted in our students fitting in homework and studying throughout all hours of the day and night.”
In turn, districts must ensure that academic support programs are carefully tailored to meet the needs of all types of students—no matter their schedules or socioeconomic status.
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.
The inquiry-based model of learning has been shown to be particularly effective in developing the soft skills required for lifelong learning, including:
Metacognition: By asking questions rather than providing answers, Paper’s inquiry-based approach is effective in supporting metacognition—encouraging students 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.” This is a critical skill for students preparing to enter a world of rapid change.
Self-advocacy: This reflects a student’s ability to assess and identify the help they require, find relevant resources, 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. For instance, Paper’s inquiry-based learning model is built to foster self-advocacy by asking students to identify and articulate their needs to tutors.
Career and college readiness: Evolving to match an ever-fluctuating world
Given the challenges of today—permanent market shifts following COVID-19, the mass adoption of remote work, and technologies shaking up our world among them—a linear career path that relies on obtaining a four-year college degree is no longer the norm. Today’s students must focus on adaptability and envisioning multiple ways forward, which begets looking beyond college degrees as an extension of K-12.
Of course, giving students a chance to learn about, explore, and plan for these pathways is easier said than done, and it requires districts to come to a consensus about what makes a career and college readiness program robust. All in all, however, districts that take a more holistic approach to career and college readiness 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.
Our career and college readiness self-assessment survey is a free auditing tool designed to help K-12 leaders evaluate their district’s performance against national CCR best practices.