Get actionable tips and insights to better support your student career exploration journeys in this free ebook!

You’ll learn:

  • Learn about the role software plays in making it easier to support your students.
  • Find the most effective ways to support students at the school and district levels.
  • Discover tools that will help you and your team make the job easier.
  • Explore the tried and true methods of getting students engaged in their career exploration journey.
  • Find the secrets to mastering career initiatives when time to manage all associated activities is limited.
  • See how we make it easier to demonstrate participation in programs and more!


Section I: Introduction

Although the pandemic-related disruptions of 2020 halted progress in some states, overall, the twenty-first century has seen steady improvement in public high school graduation rates across the country. The national on-time graduation rate reached 86% for the 2018-2019 school year, the highest since the Department of Education began applying the ACGR measure. This is good news, yet too often, graduates are leaving high school unsure of what to do next. Many who do have a plan discover months or even years later that their plan doesn’t reflect their interests and aptitudes—they’ve been following a career path that doesn’t fit who they are or what they can do.

Only 45% of bachelor’s degree-seeking college students complete a degree in four years. Even after six years, only 63% earn a degree. A third of the students that enroll in a degree program change their majors within the first three years, which usually requires additional semesters in college, adding to overall tuition, books, and room and board expenses. Of the students who complete a bachelor’s degree and begin work, 41% are underemployed. They may have found well-paying jobs, but their degrees weren’t necessary. A different post-secondary pathway may have been more direct and less costly. These statistics point to the need for better career exploration and planning at the high school level. 

A four-year college education is not the best fit for all students 

Historically, career and college readiness programs emphasized college admissions. A bachelor’s degree was seen as the primary route to a middle-class life. US Department of Education initiatives have supported this view since the post-WWII era, when President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education issued its Higher Education for American Democracy report. When introducing the 1947 report, Truman stressed the importance of education for a strong democracy and made a goal of doubling college admissions in the United States by 1960.

Six decades and eleven presidents later, the federal government continued to stress college education. In a 2010 speech, President Obama noted that the US had slipped from first place to twelfth in college graduation rates, and he pledged to implement policies that would see the country back on top. While the goal of policymakers has been career and college readiness, the career aspect often seems to be merged with pursuing a college degree to the detriment of other post-secondary pathways.

This bias toward a college education does not strictly stem from possible future earnings. Many good-paying jobs do not require a college degree. But a cultural value that preferences white-collar over blue-collar labor is woven into the nation’s fabric. Technical or vocational education does not hold the same prestige as a bachelor’s degree. A college graduate can assume a preferred social status, a holdover of a time when only the upper classes could afford higher education.

Too many high school students have chosen college over other post-secondary education pathways. This has led to a mismatch between skills and job opportunities and contributes to the current labor shortages experienced in several industries. In a January 2022 World Economic Forum address, US Treasury Secretary Yellen acknowledged this, saying, “Potential GDP in the United States is constrained by a declining labor force and, with few exceptions, productivity growth has been sluggish since the late 1970s. We have underinvested in public infrastructure, and in education and training for children and all those who have not sought a four-year college degree.” 

Non-degree credentials are in demand

According to the National Skills Coalition, 52% of jobs in the US require some post-secondary training but not a four-year college degree, yet only 43% of workers have the necessary skills training. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that occupations such as medical support personnel, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, HVAC installers, and IT support staff will see faster-than-average growth. These positions do require training but not a college degree, and the median salary is in line with national averages. To take advantage of these career opportunities, students must first be introduced to these options and have the tools to explore the different pathways that they can take to find a rewarding career.

Section II: Student behavior in career and education selection 

What drives a student’s career and college choices? 

In the elementary and middle school grades, students’ career ambitions will range from the fanciful to the ambitious (and there is nothing wrong with either)—from the kindergartener who wants to be a Jedi warrior to the seventh-grader who dreams of being a rock star. As they grow in awareness of the realities that surround them, they narrow their perceptions of what is practical. This narrowing is influenced by several variables.

The social cognitive career theory, an outgrowth of Bandura’s social cognitive theory, examines how students develop, decide, and succeed in their academic and career choices. The theory identifies three variables that impact students’ career choices:

  1. Self-efficacy beliefs: At a simplistic level, self-efficacy beliefs influence academic and career choices because people tend to enjoy doing things that they believe that they do well. Conversely, they tend to avoid activities that make them feel incompetent. This presumes a fixed mindset. For example, students who believe that they have no aptitude for math may not take math classes beyond the minimum required for graduation and may never entertain careers in STEM fields. However, with support and application of growth mindset principles, students can learn to embrace challenges and will be motivated to practice and study to increase their efficacy in areas that spark their interest. Efficacy beliefs are not a substitute for skills and knowledge, but students who believe that they are capable will most likely continue to pursue their interests, further building their skills.
  2. Outcome expectations: “Will a job in this field pay enough? Will I enjoy this work environment? Will I find it personally rewarding? Does it confer my desired social status?” A student’s beliefs about the rewards of a particular career play a significant part in their career decision-making process. These beliefs may not be accurate. Students can have a distorted view of what makes a “good” salary and a romanticized version of the daily tasks required in different occupations.
  3. Goals: Self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations guide students as they develop two types of goals: action goals (what they will do) and performance goals (how well they will do it.) Success at reaching their academic and career goals will confirm self-efficacy beliefs. Failure to achieve their goals may force students to reassess their beliefs about their abilities and adjust or abandon their goals. 

External forces that affect a student’s career and college decisions

Linda Gottfredson’s “Circumscription and compromise: A developmental theory of occupational aspirations” lays out a framework for understanding how children develop ideas about occupations and their role in society. The theory identifies four developmental stages that children move through as they gain occupational awareness and begin to reject career opportunities for themselves. While Gotfredson’s theory isn’t perfect, an understanding of these four stages is useful to better support career exploration for students.

  1. Preschool: As preschoolers, children become aware of occupations as a way of categorizing people. Their perspectives are limited by what they see firsthand in their families and communities and what they glean vicariously from books, television, and other media.
  2. Primary grades: In elementary school, they will begin to attribute specific characteristics to different occupations. At this developmental stage, gender is a primary indicator of their suitability for a particular job, and they will begin applying these roles to themselves. For example, if a boy is in a school that hires mostly women teachers, he may infer that teaching is not a career that he should consider. When thinking about his possible future, positions that traditionally have been filled by men, such as truck drivers or construction workers, will seem more natural. Although the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s did much to break down gender barriers, occupational segregation persists into the twenty-first century, and children notice.
  3. Intermediate and middle grades: A student’s social awareness grows in the intermediate and middle school grades, and their career ambitions will begin to factor perceived social status into their calculations. For better or worse, social status is linked to occupation, and students become acutely aware of the prestige assigned to different job titles.
  4. High school: In high school, students become more sophisticated in their reasoning and will search for career options that match their interests, abilities, and self-image. They will eliminate careers that fall outside of these parameters. While a student’s self-concept is perhaps the greatest influencer, teachers, school counselors, family members, and family culture also play roles in a student’s career decisions.

In a 2012 US Department of Education survey, high school freshmen cited their families as having the most influence on their education and career choices. A small percentage of survey respondents, less than 5%, said that their career choices were influenced by counselors, coaches, employers, or military recruiters—professionals who can offer students accurate information about various careers and the best pathways to pursuing those careers.

While a family’s culture is important and a student’s interests and abilities are perhaps best understood by family and friends, relying on these sources for career information may limit a student’s exposure to the career opportunities and education pathways available to them.

In most states, career and education planning programs are mandated or strongly encouraged. Students are required to develop education and career goals and a plan to achieve those goals. These individual learning plans (ILPs) have different names (such as Student Success Plan in Connecticut and Personal Transition Plan in Hawaii), but all serve the same general purpose. They aim to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared for post-secondary education and a career. A comprehensive ILP program that supports career exploration for students will engage and motivate with purpose and direction. 

Career exploration to engage and motivate students

Students who envision themselves as college students and are excited about the career opportunities that a four-year degree makes possible will be engaged in their studies and motivated to enroll in challenging classes that will help further their goals. They are more likely to engage in extracurricular activities that align with their interests and strengthen their college applications.

Traditionally, school counseling departments dedicate a large percentage of resources to supporting college-bound students. The work of exploring degree programs and colleges, determining and meeting admission requirements, completing applications, and securing financial aid requires the support of a counseling professional.

Non-college-bound students, those whose interests and aptitudes suggest that a different pathway is a better fit, also need this same level of support.

Multiple studies have shown that students become motivated when they create their own goals. Understanding what they need and want and forming a plan of action inspire them with a sense of self-efficacy and agency that drives motivation. The process of assessing their interests, skills, and values deepens their intrapersonal knowledge, which will help them in decision-making throughout their lives.

To be intrinsically motivated and engaged in classwork, students must see the connections between their learning and their future. Students need to explore all their career options to best identify those that best fit their interests and abilities and set goals that will give purpose to their education. These goals may lead to college, or they may require career and technical training, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, or military service. Students who are introduced to all these options have a better chance of finding the pathway that best fits their individual needs. 

Section III: Challenges faced by school counseling departments

School counselors spend most of their workday providing direct student services, and they recognize the uniqueness of each student. Even in districts with a largely homogenous student body, with families that have similar cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds, all students bring to school unique combinations of interests, personal values, and academic, social, and emotional strengths and weaknesses. It is a challenge to develop an ILP program that equally serves all students.

As diversity in American classrooms increases, so does the need to differentiate instruction. Cultural influences may affect how a student prioritizes the desired outcomes of a career plan and embraces or rejects possible career options. More subtle influences, such as how a student is raised to interact with authority figures, can strongly impact their academic and career planning, as they may suppress their own interests out of deference to their families, teachers, and counselors. Programs of career exploration for students need to respond to these differences with a curriculum that can be tailored to meet diverse needs. One size will not fit all. Individualizing a program for each student is a tall order, given that most school counselors have caseloads that make it difficult to meet regularly with individual students.

On average, the ratio of school counselors to students across the country is 470 to one, nearly twice the 250-to-one ratio recommended by the American School Counselors Association (ASCA). This varies across states: according to a 2018 NACAC report created in partnership with the ASCA, counselors in Arizona, Michigan, and California are carrying the highest caseloads. Only three states, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Wyoming, meet or exceed the ASCA recommendation. The report also revealed that nearly 20% of American students have no access to a counselor, and counselors in public schools must spend more time on duties besides post-secondary planning than their counterparts in private schools. 

Expanded career exploration programs increase counselors’ workload 

Career and college readiness programs are best implemented in the middle school grades, and most schools recognize this. According to Gottfredson’s Theory of Circumscription and Compromise, this is the stage when students begin to associate occupations with social standing, and they may eliminate some careers as unsuitable based on their limited knowledge of careers and the world of work. These circumscriptions, according to Gottfredson, are often permanent.

As beneficial as it is to engage younger students in career exploration activities, it also creates additional work for school counselors. When ILP programs begin with sixth and seventh graders, school counselors must track student progress over six or seven years. Depending on the size of the district, this may mean working between buildings and coordinating with a student’s previous counselor. This becomes an arduous task when a counselor has several hundred students to track.

School counselors are also charged with keeping families informed and engaged in their children’s progress toward career and college readiness. In addition to the difficulties of connecting with parents and guardians who are not at home during the school day, according to the ASCA 2020 State of the Profession survey report, only 35% of parents and families appear to understand what a school counselor actually does.

The 2020 school year was difficult, with most schools switching to remote learning. Counselors who responded to the ASCA survey cited that access to their students was the greatest challenge, as would be expected in the pandemic year. Even in pre-pandemic years, though, counselors cited this as a problem. Other challenges that are not pandemic-related and will continue into the post-COVID era include difficulties collecting and analyzing student data, keeping up with new technologies, and finding time for professional development.

To effectively support career exploration for students, counseling departments need tools to overcome these obstacles. Technology can help. 

Section IV: Technology to support career exploration for students 

Technology cannot replace a counselor’s role in career and post-secondary education planning, but programs such as XAP’s Choices360 can turn much of the work over to students. Online programs will free up counselor time and empower students with the tools that they need to assess their interests, values, and aptitudes. These assessments will then inform their career exploration.

A comprehensive program can encourage students to explore a wide range of occupations and learn about the different educational pathways available to them. This exploration can be revelatory for students who, influenced by societal norms, believe that college is the sole pathway to a rewarding career. This self-directed learning can build a student’s sense of self-efficacy and autonomy, psychological needs that drive intrinsic motivation. They will become engaged in the planning process and begin to develop academic and career goals with enthusiasm.

Today’s students, the Gen Z generation, were born into a hyperconnected world, and they are comfortable with technology. Most carry smartphones in their pockets, and the internet is their go-to source of information. While counselors do develop strong relationships with their students and can gain student trust and respect, many students may prefer this self-led journey of discovery over face-to-face conversations. With technology that has a user-friendly interface, students can progress through a grade-based curriculum at their own pace and investigate job clusters that align with their interests. 

Types of online activities to support career exploration for students 

Although ILP program requirements vary by state, generally, they all must include assessments, introduction to career clusters, and details about specific occupations and their educational requirements. Once a student identifies a career, they must identify a pathway to that career and create an academic plan that supports their goals. Technology can facilitate this process.

Students may begin by inventorying their interests and values, learning styles, academic strengths, and personal ambitions. Young adults are still in the process of forming a self-concept, and research-based assessments can support students as they try to better understand themselves. These can solidify what they believe to be true or highlight aspects of themselves that they had not yet recognized.

Of course, personal attributes, interests, and desires will change as students mature and grow in sophistication, so students must reassess regularly—ideally, once a year. The girl who was passionate about multi-user video games in middle school may have developed new interests as a high school sophomore and should not be wedded to the idea that coding video games is her best career option.

With assessments completed, students may explore career clusters on their own and seek out occupations that match their interests and aptitudes. They can learn about the different occupations within clusters, the daily tasks and working environment that they can expect in a particular job, and the type of training required to enter the field. This training may be college, or it could be a technical program that grants certificates or prepares students for a professional license. Students may discover that they can achieve their career goals with an apprenticeship, internship, or another type of on-the-job training. Some students may find that military service offers the best fit for them. Equipped with a goal, students can then create their four-year academic plan.

Another advantage of implementing a modern career and college planning program is that these programs are scalable, and when used district-wide, they bring consistency across grade levels and streamline operations in the counseling department. 

Services for college-bound students 

For students whose assessments and career exploration leads them to pursue a college pathway, online program activities can guide them through college and degree program searches. Seniors may use the Choices360 platform to complete applications, request transcripts and letters of recommendation. They may also explore and apply for financial aid. 

Technology to support counselors with the post-secondary planning process 

The population size, demographics, geographical location, and industrial base of a school district inform the requirements of an effective career and academic planning program. Schools need the ability to adapt ILP curricula to meet the unique needs of the communities that they serve. They must also meet state mandates. A modifiable program enables the counseling department to select the activities and add supplementary media, such as videos, to make the experience relevant for their students. 

Unlike legacy systems, where data is often siloed in separate programs, a modern ILP program brings together information in one space. Data collection and analysis are simplified when all information may be accessed through a centralized dashboard. Counselors can easily track student progress, create reports to measure program effectiveness, and complete state-mandated reporting. Parents and guardians may also be allowed access to their child’s information, so they can become engaged in the process and provide important support from home.

School leaders tasked with developing career readiness programs may hesitate to implement a new online-based program, given the difficulties that counselors report about keeping up with the latest technology. Finding time for professional development is a challenge, but it must be met. David Hess, a school counselor at Elgin High School in Elgin, Illinois, put it succinctly: “There is a strong need to support professional development and training around the post-secondary process. Ensuring that all students graduate with a post-secondary plan requires understanding, planning, and systems throughout the whole school.” Fortunately, career planning platform developers offer training through videos, webinars, and on-site visits.

Preparing students for college admission is vital, but the changing marketplace demands more, and students who are not headed to college need tools to find the post-secondary pathways that best fit their unique needs. A career and college planning platform gives students what they need to explore the full range of career and post-secondary education options. The self-directed learning model will better engage students as they complete assessments and are guided through activities to find a pathway that fits their unique personalities.

Modernizing a district’s career and college planning program will streamline processes, simplify data collection, and facilitate internal and external communications, giving counselors more time for direct student services.

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!