Learn how to maximize your graduation rates through better student career planning in this free ebook!

You’ll learn:

  • Learn how you can improve graduation rates through better student career planning.
  • Gain insights on modern approaches to student career planning.
  • See how others better support students through their career planning, especially for non-college-bound students.
  • Find actionable strategies to that can help you improve graduation rates.
  • Discover ways to simplify your district’s post-secondary planning process.
  • See ways to improve not only graduation but retention and more!


Globalization, advances in technology, and demographic shifts have brought major changes to the US jobs market. The rise of ecommerce has increased demands for labor in warehousing, transportation, and call centers. Hundreds of shopping malls are slated for closure, along with the retail sales positions that they furnish. Automation in manufacturing and service industries has weakened the demand for unskilled labor. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, demand for healthcare practitioners and healthcare support staff is projected to increase 16% over the next ten years. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated these trends.

This new labor market rises amidst the growing global challenges of climate change, food insecurity, clean water accessibility, aging infrastructure, cybersecurity, and the possibility of new pandemics. Science, technology, engineering, and math education are vital to meeting these challenges. Improving high school graduation rates has always been a fundamental goal of any school counseling department, but it takes on greater importance in these times, not only for the welfare of individual students but also for the country and the world.

The good news is that graduation rates are improving. The US on-time graduation rate averaged 86% for the 2018-2019 school year. However, a breakdown of data by race and ethnicity reveals large disparities. The effects of the pandemic and the switch to remote learning on graduation rates are unclear. While some states report higher drop-out rates in 2020, some found that graduation rates increased during the pandemic, possibly because business shutdowns reduced the opportunity cost of staying in school. High school students weren’t lured away from the classroom by job opportunities. But this is no longer the case.

The unemployment rate is dropping to new lows, and businesses are struggling to fill open positions. Will students stay in school, studying what they may consider to be obtuse subjects, when jobs that once paid minimum wage are now paying $15 to $20 an hour?

How can school counseling departments, tasked with providing effective career and college planning programs, best respond to these labor market changes and ensure that all students have the opportunity to graduate with a diploma and a plan for their future?

Preventing Dropouts: What Works 

As the economy rebounds with a strong job market and rising wages, students need the motivation to stay in school more than ever. The US Department of Education’s IES What Works Clearinghouse offers four evidence-based recommendations for preventing dropouts: 

  • Monitor student progress and proactively intervene.
  • Individualize support for at-risk students.
  • Engage students with programs that connect education with career and college success.
  • Group students into smaller communities to facilitate monitoring and intervention.

While most school counseling programs already do these things and do them well, the third point—connecting education with career and college success—may need a fresh approach to meet the demands of a changing job market. 

Ever since the post-World War II era, student career planning programs have been heavily weighted toward increasing college admission rates, with fewer resources dedicated to career and technical education (CTE), military service, and on-the-job training. As many school counselors recognize, this is not an equitable model. Non-college-bound students need equal access to career exploration experiences and information about alternative post-secondary options. Without an awareness of these options, many students will not make the education-career connection.

A counseling department’s resources are finite. Meeting the needs of all students can be a juggling act with budget constraints and limitations on the time that counselors have to spend individualizing support. Technology offers a solution.

Student-directed online career planning gives students the tools and resources to explore options and discover the various pathways that they may follow toward career and college readiness. Modern career planning programs turn control of the process over to students, who make the search unique and personal. As students work through the curriculum, counselors can electronically follow their progress and provide interventions as needed. 

The State of Career and College Planning Programs 

As of January 2020, thirty-four state education departments require that students develop an Individual Learning Plan (ILP). Even states that do not mandate ILPs do encourage their use. These plans go by different names: Education and Career Planning, Student Success plans, and Individual Career and Academic Plan. The scope of these plans also varies by state. Some combine career and academic planning, others are for career plans only, and still others require only education plans. No matter what these plans are called, they have a similar purpose: they seek to help students set goals and make informed choices in course selection and extra-curricular activities to best reach their post-secondary goals.

How effective are these programs? Helen Duffy, a REL Southwest researcher, says that there currently exists no rigorous research to analytically answer this question. Qualitative studies suggest that ILPs are “a potentially powerful tool that can help students become more intentional and engaged in their educational experiences.” Boston University Professor V. Scott Solberg offers anecdotal evidence to illustrate this.

In a 2019 webinar on “State Support for Individual Learning Plans,” Solberg told the story of a low-socioeconomic-status, first-generation college student who entered high school as an unengaged student. She showed no interest in academics and ranked in the bottom third of her class. As she went through the ILP process, she developed an interest in biotechnology. By exploring an online career information system, she learned that the hospital setting offered many career options that lined up with her interest.

During the summer between tenth and eleventh grade, she attended a local college to earn dietician aide certification and then found a job at a nearby hospital. She enjoyed the work and was able to learn firsthand about careers in healthcare. In her junior and senior years, she added math and science classes to her schedule and earned advanced placement college credits. Upon graduation, she was awarded a full scholarship to a state college, where she pursued a degree in nursing. 

This is the type of success story that we hope to tell for all students. College was the right choice for this future nurse, but it may not be the right choice for others.

A college degree holds a level of prestige that students may believe that they must achieve, and Western culture historically has supported a belief that the best post-secondary route is matriculation into a college degree program. School counseling departments dedicate a large share of resources to ensuring that students meet college admission requirements, complete applications, explore campuses, and secure financial aid. This emphasis on college could discourage students from exploring other pathways even though CTE or other routes may better align with their interests, aptitudes, and the needs of the marketplace.

The future nurse was highly motivated because she found a path through her own exploration that aligned with her interests, values, and aptitudes. Non-college-bound students need the same opportunity to find pathways that excite them. Parents are recognizing this and are asking counselors for more post-secondary options for their children. Meeting the need for more options is critical to improving graduation rates.

Students who see no purpose to their education will have no intrinsic motivation to continue. Although external systems of reward and punishment (administered by parents, teachers, or peers) may keep them in school, without a way to align their education with their values, interests, and hopes for the future, students may lose motivation and become at risk of dropping out. 

How Career Planning Engages and Motivates Students 

Ryan and Deci’s classic study, “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being,” posits that “[t]he fullest representations of humanity show people to be curious, vital, and self-motivated.” This position seems to be at odds with what educators often see in the classroom. Mixed in with the enthusiastic learners are students who appear uninspired and apathetic. They show little interest in academics. Even highly creative and interactive lessons do not move them. Each year across the country, tens of thousands of students, against their own best interests, leave school without a diploma. Why?

Self-determination theory holds that humans have three basic psychological needs: a sense of self-efficacy, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of belonging. A deficit in any of these leads to decreased motivation and discontent. Students need to believe that they are capable, and this belief must come from within as a result of their own effort. Extrinsic rewards and praise meant to build self-esteem will do little for a student who doesn’t genuinely believe that they’ve accomplished something of value.

To accept credit for their achievements, students need autonomy; they need to believe that they directed their own actions and have accomplished something through their own agency, rather than by following someone else’s script.

According to Ryan and Deci, the third need is a sense of belonging. This moves into the realm of philosophy and personal belief systems—a belief in the interconnectedness of humanity and the innate need that humans have to find purpose and meaning in life. It is best evidenced in the school setting by the power of a strong school community to motivate students. It is found in spirit week, school colors, bottle drives, and homecoming football games. It is also found in well-designed programs, including career planning programs, that serve the needs of each student. Each student is a participant. 

The Importance of Engaging Students in Career Exploration Early 

By the time they are old enough to go to preschool, children have already begun to discern differences among people and to identify the roles and occupations held by the adults in their lives. The developmental framework laid out in Linda Gottfredson’s Circumscription and Compromise theory suggests that career exploration is best begun in the primary grades, as children start to eliminate their career possibilities based on easily recognized criteria, primarily gender and age.

The intermediate and middle school grades, roughly ages nine to thirteen, are critical years as students explore possible identities, trying on and casting off possible selves like Halloween costumes. Their thinking grows in sophistication as they develop a keener awareness of social status and the level of prestige linked to specific occupations. These become limiting factors as they eliminate possible futures for themselves based on their perceptions of their position in society. At the same time, students’ engagement in school and learning declines. Career exploration and planning programs in these grades can counteract this early circumscription of career options and help re-engage students by linking school work with career and college. 

Goal Setting to Build Learning Skills and Self-Motivate Students 

Numerous studies point to the positive impact that setting goals has on students’ motivation, engagement, sense of efficacy, and metacognition. Effective education and career planning programs include lessons in goal setting and provide students with the information and tools that they need to explore all their options. This becomes particularly important in high school because students’ sense of themselves as unique individuals strengthens, and they seek career and college options that align with their values and interests.

Students may feel restrained by external pressures, such as family expectations and financial situations, but those who are allowed to create goals for themselves become invested in their education and are more likely to graduate and experience success in their post-secondary endeavors.

Another benefit of learning how to set goals is the self-awareness that it engenders. The process of developing one’s ILP is a lesson in how to gather, analyze, and apply information to not only write an assigned essay but also to identify what it will take to live—not merely dream about—the life that they want for themselves. It is a process students will use again and again as lifelong learners.  

The Role of School Counselors 

People’s image of what a school counselor does on a daily basis is most likely based on their own experiences in school. The parents and guardians of students in school today are a generation removed from the practices of a twenty-first-century school counseling department. They may picture the counselor meeting with students individually or in small groups to guide them through the maze of graduation requirements, career exploration, skill and interest assessments, college admission requirements, college applications, FAFSA, and state aid forms.

Counselors recognize that each of their students has a unique combination of aptitudes and interests. Increasing diversity in the nation brings a vibrant mix of cultures and values to the student population. As future participants in a global economy, students will undoubtedly benefit from this pluralistic environment. However, this does present challenges as counseling department leaders strive to create inclusive programs to meet the needs of all students. These needs vary: the more diverse the population, the greater the variations and the greater the need to expand programs. 

Students come to school with different experiences, different levels of social-emotional learning, and different family expectations, based on their culture and perceived position in society. When it comes to their aspirations for the future, students arrive at the school door with an understanding of societal roles and occupations that grew from their family situation and what they’ve seen in their neighborhoods and gleaned from books, television, and other media. This can limit the career and college possibilities that they can envision for themselves. It falls to school counselors and the district’s career and education planning program to provide a view of the full range of options that each student has. 

While building relationships with students and helping them navigate the terrain of graduation requirements and post-secondary planning is rewarding, the amount of time that counselors have to dedicate to each student is limited. New state ILP mandates, reporting requirements, and the demand for data-driven programming (which requires data collection and analysis) expand the role of the school counselor beyond direct student services. This is important work because a strong program relies on data to develop effective policies and give direction to a counseling program. However, this work takes away from an essential element of the job: counseling.

As the touchpoint for career and college planning, the school counseling department is also tasked with keeping open communications with school administrators, teachers, and support staff; families, local businesses, and post-secondary education institutions; and the community. While all these stakeholders share a common goal—to see each student apply their talents toward securing a productive and fulfilling future—they join the discussion from different perspectives.

Parents have concerns about their children’s progress, teachers identify problems with academic performance and attendance, administrators need to know graduation and college admission rates, and businesses are interested in schools for their role in workforce development. School counselors are positioned to address the concerns of all those involved in a child’s education and keep everyone informed of progress and problems.

Add to these roles the demands of implementing and documenting career and college planning programs. Each district has unique qualities, a combination of the community’s demographics, geography, size, and history. Each state has its own ILP requirements. Out-of-the-box programs rarely are a perfect fit, and the counseling department is responsible for customizing programs to meet the needs of their students. 

Challenges Faced by School Counselors

The ASCA 2020 State of the Profession survey shows positive trends in the field. Nearly 90% of counselors agree that their schools provide the developmentally appropriate instruction that students need for postsecondary readiness and success. Most report that the career planning programs in their schools are delivered systematically, and more than three-quarters of respondents state that their schools’ programs are based on the ASCA model (RAMP). On average, school counselors spend 80% of their time counseling, instructing, advising, and appraising students, a rate that aligns with the ASCA model. However, challenges exist.

The ASCA survey was taken as schools moved to remote or hybrid learning in response to the global pandemic. As expected, connecting with students proved to be the most significant challenge cited by survey respondents. This irregularity aside, the perennial problem of heavy caseloads was the most pressing issue.

Nationwide, the average student-to-counselor ratio far exceeds the ASCA recommendation of 250:1, a function of strained budgets and district priorities. This directly impacts graduate rates because over-burdened counselors may be unable to identify or implement interventions for students at risk of dropping out.

Recognizing the importance of early career exploration, most districts implement some type of ILP program in their middle schools. Tracking student progress across a district’s schools becomes a challenge. Student work that is initiated in the middle school grades may not smoothly link up with a student’s high school work. High school counselors may not have the systems that they need to easily follow student progress with the career and education planning curriculum.

Another telling insight found in the survey is how different stakeholders perceive the role of school counselors. Only 35% of parents and families adequately understand the function of their children’s counselors. Parents and guardians cannot effectively work with counselors if they lack understanding of what a counselor does and does not do. They will not know the questions to ask or the information to provide about their child’s needs. Counselors are charged with coordinating communications between the school and home.

Modernizing a district’s career planning program can go a long way toward meeting these challenges to better engage students and improve graduation rates. 

Leverage Technology to Support All Students 

Self-Directed Career Exploration 

Modern career and education planning programs use technology to provide students with the resources and tools that they need to explore career options, set goals, and create personal learning plans. Students in school now were born into the age of hyperconnectivity and are comfortable using computers and mobile devices. Self-directed exploration satisfies the need for self-efficacy and autonomy. Students are more likely to become engaged in learning plans and progress toward goals that they created themselves. This motivation will help keep them on track toward graduation and give them a clear picture of what they need to do to secure the future that they envision for themselves.

Early in the program, students can develop an awareness of the career clusters and may drill down to learn more about specific fields that spark their interest. A modern program curriculum will guide students through a sequence of grade-level appropriate activities, such as interest and aptitude assessments, suitable high school classes, career and degree programs that meet their needs, college and technical education searches, resume writing, and financial aid planning.

Students will be exposed to career and post-secondary education options that they may not have known existed or have not considered because the occupations fall outside of the gender and social status parameters that they have created for themselves. Through their research, students can create a plan and select appropriate courses to meet graduation requirements and support their career and post-secondary education goals, which may be college admission, CTE, military service, or some type of apprenticeship or on-the-job training.

Automated Tasks for College-Bound Students 

Comprehensive systems support college-bound students with programs to manage college applications and associated tasks, such as transcripts and letters of recommendation requests. While these programs cannot replace the advice and guidance of a school counselor, they can streamline activities to reduce the time demands on the counseling department.

Information Hub for Counselors, Educators, and Other Professionals 

One of the greatest benefits of updating career planning technology is the ability that modern programs give to counselors to access data from a central dashboard. In legacy systems, data is often locked in separate silos, but now, it can be aggregated to provide a fuller picture of student progress and program effectiveness.

A user-friendly hub puts individual student information at the counselor’s fingertips, making it easier to identify students who need additional support. Counselors may track student progress, maintain a communications log, manage group instruction, and create individual student and school or district-wide reports. The program curriculum, transition planning guides for IEP and 504 students, and lesson plans may be accessed through the hub. From the information center, administrators may modify ILP curricula to fit the unique needs of the district and ensure that the district is meeting state requirements.

All stakeholders, including parents and guardians, may be given access to relevant information, keeping all parties informed. With counselors, educators, and families working together, students are more likely to graduate and experience success in their post-secondary pursuits.

Modern Career Planning to Improve Graduation Rates 

An effective career and education planning program excites students. It can give them the autonomy and sense of efficacy that drives motivation and creates a sense of purpose in their education. Students who are exposed to a broad range of careers and post-secondary training and education options are more likely to find a pathway that suits their interests and abilities. Students who make the education-career connection understand that they need to stay in school to achieve their goals.

Systems that include vigorous data collection and reporting capabilities assist counselors in identifying at-risk students early when interventions are more effective. Online career planning programs are easily scaled up or down as student populations grow or decline, making them a cost-effective choice for meeting student needs and state ILP requirements.

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!