A recent report by Mary G. Visher of MDRC and David Stern of the University of California, Berkeley, emphasizes the growing need for career and college pathways while providing evidence of its successes. This report comes at an important time in the discussion of career and college pathways, as more and more employers are recognizing a lack of soft skills in today’s college graduates. It also comes at a time where out of 100 9th grades, only 21 will earn a college degree within six years of enrolling. No matter their level of educational attainment, students must gain the skills and aspirations necessary to achieve their career goals. Evidence suggests career and college pathways are successful at instilling those aspirations and learning those skills.
Visher and Stern began their report with a history of career-technical education. Starting as early as 1969, schools in areas like Philadelphia, New York City, and California, prepared students with perceived lower potential and lower academic progress for careers through vocational training. Slowly, career-technical education has evolved to preparing all students for college and careers. CTE became college and career pathways.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the federal law allowing funds for vocational education provided funding for students for careers requiring a bachelor’s degree or more. Most students who take part in career and college pathways programs today are more likely to come from families with lower income and less educated parents. They are less likely to take advanced math courses in high school and are less likely to enter and complete college. Unlike early participants in CTE, 88% of students who take part in career and college pathways complete the academic coursework needed for college.
Visher and Stern followed the history of career-technical education with an outline of the core principles of the most promising pathways programs. They highlighted ten principles of a successful program:
- Gives students options after high school – college, employment while in college, direct entry into the workforce, etc. and skills that are transferable no matter what pathway a student chooses
- Gives students the choice of participating and choice of pathway
- Includes a small team of teachers that work with the same students for three-four years provide personal support to the students
- Combines subject matters in project-based learning
- Engage students with projects relevant beyond the classroom
- Partners with employers for classroom visits, workplace visits, and job shadowing
- Collaborates with colleges – campus visits, tracking students’ progression in high school to complete college requirements, dual enrollment
- Involves the school district – spokespersons to the community; recruiting employer partners
- Has high standards, accountability, and data-driven decision-making
- Has support from intermediary organizations, like National Academy Foundation and ConnectEd California for providing standards, professional development, curriculum, etc.
They also discussed issues with these principles. For example, students might feel peer pressure to not pursue the career pathway of their choice. In other instances, teachers might not have the training or skills necessary to integrate subject matters. Greater still, schools and districts try out college and career pathways, only to not have the resources necessary to be successful.
Visher and Stern followed with a section on the lack of quality research on the efficacy of career and college pathways; yet, the examples they give find evidence that career and college pathways programs are effective:
- One study showed a 11% earning gains among students who took part in the program then those who did not.
- Another study found CTE participants were more likely to graduate high school. They were more likely to complete the requirements to enroll in California State University or University of California.
- A preliminary report on California’s Linked Learning found similar results.
Visher and Stern believe that the studies suggest career and college pathways’ effectiveness.
Lastly, they highlight states, cities, and programs that are showing great promise. The report uses California as a strong example, highlighting California Partnership Academies and Linked Learning, as well as California’s strong investment in career pathways via grants.
Career & College Clubs is pleased with the findings, but we want the discussion to go further. We believe that students will benefit best from career and college pathways that begin in middle school. In our own middle grades research series’ publication, “Career Awareness & Preparation Activities” we cite studies that showed that students who take part in career education before high school are better able to make effective career decisions. In our publication, “College Awareness & Preparation Activities” we share research on the need to develop social-emotional skills and a college-going identity in the middle grades. Career & College Clubs believes students will get the full benefits of career and college pathways by starting them on those pathways earlier.