High school students attend the Skillify conference at University of Southern California to ensure they are college and career ready.

Can students truly be college-ready without being career-ready?

I was at the annual NACAC (National Association for College Admissions Counseling) conference in Boston in September. The conference invited thousands of counselors from around the nation to learn more about preparing our students for the changing world. There were many seminars offered, but there was one seminar in particular that I still can’t stop thinking about — it was titled “Effective College and Career-readiness Programs.”

In 2015, California received over $119 million in Perkins funding, which supports college and career-readiness programs. According to the Massachusetts’ Department of Education, “being college and career ready means that an individual has the knowledge, skills and experiences necessary for success in postsecondary education and economically viable career pathways in a 21st century economy.” More counselors are being tasked with ensuring students are college and career ready, so it was no surprise that this seminar had over 200 attendees.

I was fortunate enough to be able to personally speak with at least 25% of those attendees, and realized that there were three types of counselors in attendance:

  1. Counselors from schools that actually had CTE (Career-Technical Education) funding — they were eager to use it towards implementing initiatives that promote a “career-readiness” culture within the entire school.

Let’s talk about the first type.

These counselors get it. They are also fortunate to work at schools that receive CTE funding. While the majority of this funding is reserved for building and supporting career pathways within a school, these counselors understand that career programs should not only be reserved for students in those pathways. They know from experience that students who are hyper-college focused and are taking numerous AP courses are not making time for career pathways. They also know that there is an unfortunate stigma around career classes. As the myth goes: “If you’re in a career pathway, you’re not a good student.” These counselors understand how toxic that stigma is for actually preparing all students for post-secondary life. They know that whether a student chooses to pursue college, a gap year, or trade school after high school, all of them will end up in the same place in the long run: trying to find the best career for themselves.

Vicky Lee, Business Academy Lead Teacher at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco shares:

“It is my belief as an educator that it is my responsibility to prepare my students for their future post high school. As a part of the preparation, students need to have skills for navigating through the college environment, which includes many soft skills that career programs teach. Students need to build skills in collaboration, communication, networking, and basic computer soft skills. Upon entering college, many students opt to work or apply for internships. In order to get those opportunities, students need to be confidence in their networking skills and have the ability to seek out these opportunities. Regardless of whether or not a student plans on working full-time after high school or attends a four year university, students need career programs in high school to best prepare them for their future.”

Vicky, and many counselors who share her belief, work hard every day to promote a “career-readiness” culture within their schools, so that every student understands the importance of being career-ready regardless of their post-secondary choices.

Then there’s the second type.

These counselors get it too. But unfortunately, they feel helpless. These counselors share the same belief as the first type discussed, but the difference is that they do not have the adequate support. They belong to communities that believe “college-ready” is equivalent to “career-ready.” Many of these communities support students that come from affluent households, with educated parents and plenty of opportunities. Those students are expected to go to four year universities, and given their familial backgrounds, are expected to be career-ready. But these are the students I meet that struggle the most. They work day and night to get high test scores and excellent grades; they are enrolled in every extracurricular and service project. They are doing research and writing 17 paged reports.

They are stressed out, sleep-deprived, and they are all going to college.

And when they get to college, they realize that they have no idea how to explore their interests. Their declared majors are based on subjects they enjoyed in high school, and not on actual work experience. When they’re tasked with finding internships, as all college students are, they struggle with knowing where to go and who to ask for help. There is no doubt that they will do well in school given their academic track record, but given that the majority choose top ranked colleges in hopes to secure strong careers upon college graduation, many realize too late that they lack the skills to truly be career-ready.

Lastly, let’s discuss the third type.

These are the counselors who lost interest during the “career-readiness” portion of the seminar. I spoke to several counselors after the seminar who said they didn’t resonate with this portion because they worked at schools with a 100% college-bound rate. Did they have career programs for those college-bound students? Every single counselor I talked to within this type said no.

How can students truly be college-ready without being career-ready? I recently worked with a group of 110 high school juniors and asked them a simple question: “Why do you want to go to college?” The majority said “Because I have to,” and “To get a good job.” But when asked if they felt prepared to get a “good job,” they said no.

Robert Montgomery, Senior Program Manager at WestEd and father of two shares his perspective:

“For the past 25 years, schools have been characterized by routine and compliance and have not prepared students to be ready for workplaces of the future. Unfortunately, today’s students who are college-ready are rarely career ready, since being college-ready is primarily defined as being accepted into a college. I would like to see our k-12 school system create a new foundation for college and career readiness that begins with core social and emotional skills and extends to foundational cognitive and metacognitive practices. Interest exploration skills (deep self knowledge) are part of the core social and emotional skill of ‘self-discovery.’ All of this should begin in elementary school.”

Furthermore, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 59% of students who start at a four-year college graduate after six years. If the focus is on getting students into college, and the assumption is that being college-ready is equivalent to being career-ready, what happens to the many students that are struggling through school and possibly unsure of their choice(s) of major? And those that do graduate, why are so many unemployed or underemployed?

Kathleen Bailey, Director of Academy at Whittier High School shares her opinion:

“Students are deemed as college-ready (in California) if they have met the A-G requirements. From the high school perspective, getting students into college is seen as the goal without respect for student interests, dreams, or goals. What some overlook is that college should only be a stepping stone to a career. Some of the most helpful opportunities for a student are when they actually are exposed to career preparation. It is disappointing that the soft skills needed for success in every job are not offered until the end of a college experience. CTE fills the gap for the student who wants both!”

At Skillify, I have the privilege of working with both high school and college students, and ensuring they are all career-ready. And I can say from first-hand experience that college students who did not explore their interests in high school struggle significantly more with finding internships and agency than students who graduated high school career-ready.

So I ask you, can students truly be college-ready without being career-ready? Should career programs only be reserved for students who are less likely to attend a four-year university? Should schools have a “college-going” culture without a “career-ready” culture?

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Shireen Jaffer

Education Enthusiast, passionate about re-defining success for students - Founder @Edvo, @Skillify | USC Trojan