5 Insights on Maximizing Your Student Success Programs

The way that we measure student success has evolved over the past two decades. Before the 2001 reauthorization of ESEA, achievement gaps and low graduation rates among subgroups—primarily, low SES and minority students—could be hidden by aggregating data. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act held schools accountable by requiring the disaggregation of graduation rates so underserved populations were identified and schools incentivized to address disparities.

Although NCLB did not come without controversy, overall, the story of U.S. high school graduation rates in the twenty-first century is one of success. Graduation rates have steadily climbed. However, students need more than a high school diploma; they need to know what comes next. They need a plan that will guide them along a post-secondary pathway to reach their career and college goals.

Globalization and advances in technology, along with a shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-and-information economy, have changed the labor market and the skills and knowledge demanded by these changes. Preparing students with twenty-first-century skills meant expanding STEM programs and ensuring that students developed the soft skills necessary for future jobs. Most occupations now require some level of post-secondary education. But a 2016 Education Trust study reported that nearly half of high school graduates had not completed a career or college preparation program.

The 2015 Every Child Succeeds Act had emphasized the need to expand student success programs to introduce multiple pathways to success. The legislation increased Title I and Title II funds to support CTE, AP courses, advanced placement, and job training programs. Most states implemented some form of individual learning programs.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted post-secondary planning for many students, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reaffirmed the Education Department’s commitment to creating strong college and career planning programs.

“As we work to make colleges more affordable and accountable, we must also make them more accessible,” Cardona said in a January 2022 speech. “That means creating stronger college and career pathways between our Pre-K through Grade-12 systems, our two- and four-year colleges, and our workforce partners so that our systems lead the world. To get this done, our high schools must evolve more quickly. Each high school in the country should have at least one career counselor so that every high schooler has great options when they graduate.”

As the nation enters the third decade of this century, districts will need to modernize their student success programs to reflect new job market demands.

Updating Your Student Success Programs: Five Key Insights

1. Students need a combination of skills and knowledge to succeed.

In the past, much attention was focused on the need for students to graduate with foundational academic content knowledge. A 2005 survey of college students, their professors, and employers revealed that many students graduated lacking fundamental skills, abilities, and work habits necessary for success in college and the workplace. In 2009, the US Department of Education encouraged states to adopt more rigorous standards, such as Common Core, through Race to the Top grants. Most states responded to the challenge and implemented stricter standards, but students need more than strong academic skills.

Cognitive learning skills, such as information gathering, problem-solving, goal setting, and time management, are critical to post-secondary success and should be incorporated into high school career planning programs. Students need to explore career and college pathways and take classes in school that support their career aspirations.

2. Effective student success programs will help all students (not just college-bound ones) along their career exploration journey.

Many of the fastest-growing occupations in the US require post-secondary training, but not necessarily a bachelor’s degree. According to the National Skills Coalition, the emphasis on college has left a skills mismatch, and employers have difficulty filling positions that require specialized training. College is a good fit for many students, but a strong success program will introduce students to all sorts of post-secondary pathways. Data-based assessments will help students discover occupations that align with their interests and aptitudes.

Students are limited in their knowledge of the workplace by what they see firsthand in their families and communities and on television or other media. As early as elementary school, they begin to consider their suitability for specific lines of work based on this narrow perspective. By providing students with the resources to explore the broad range of occupations available, students are better able to find a pathway that suits their interests and values. They can begin to set goals and identify the classes that they need to pursue a career that matches their assessment results.

3. Technology can facilitate career exploration.

Setting career and education goals is a highly individualized process, and most school counseling departments do not have the resources to customize the curriculum to meet the varied needs of a diverse student body. Online career and college planning programs turn this work over to the students. They can log in, take assessments, explore career clusters, and set goals. This self-directed learning format builds students’ metacognition and teaches them problem-solving, critical thinking, and goal-setting skills that will serve them throughout their lives. Students empowered in this way will also gain a sense of autonomy and efficacy, psychological needs that underlie the intrinsic motivation necessary for success.

4. Online tools streamline processes for college-bound students.

A comprehensive career planning platform in addition to guiding students through assessments and career exploration can help college-bound juniors and seniors explore degree programs, investigate colleges, submit applications, and learn about available financial aid. Students can save and organize information under their profile and share it with their families and counselors.

5. Counselors need more time to meet with students and their families.

On average, school counselors across the country are carrying caseloads well over the 250 to one recommended by the ASCA. While technology can go a long way toward strengthening student success programs, it cannot replace the personal relationships that students build with their counselors, as these are critical to student success. When students take charge of their own career assessments and exploration, school counselors will have more time for direct student services. Additionally, updating IT systems can lighten a counseling department’s workload by simplifying data collection, reporting, and analysis processes.


Modern student success programs go beyond college prep. An effective program gives students the tools and resources to explore a broad range of occupations and learn about the multiple post-secondary pathways available to them. Technology facilitates the process and streamlines the clerical work of gathering and assessing data, so counselors may focus more on their students.

Here at XAP, we believe that exploration lays the foundation for planning. That’s why we help school and district counseling leaders implement equitable programs and strategies to ensure that students graduate high school not only with a diploma but also with a plan.

To see how we can help you better support your students and drive state, district, and school initiatives with greater ease, transparency, and data, feel free to contact our specialists today!

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