Learn how to get parents and students aware of and engaged in CTE programs with this free ebook!

You’ll learn:

  • Learn about how much CTE has changed, then vs now.
  • Take a closer look at the perception problem that CTE has and how you can address it.
  • Find out why CTE is more important than ever to today’s students.
  • Get actionable tips on communicating the value of CTE to students, parents, and other educators.
  • See the best practices for connecting students with more career exposure and opportunities.
  • See how we’re bridging the resource gap between college-bound and non-college-bound departments.


A decline in manufacturing and rapid advances in technology have driven a shift in the American jobs market over the past four decades. Globalization has sent many entry-level manufacturing jobs overseas, and automated systems have made low-skilled, repetitive manufacturing positions obsolete. According to PEW Research, while fewer jobs now require physical skills, the number of service-oriented jobs requiring specialized education has more than doubled.

A bachelor’s degree has long been seen as the best route to a rewarding career and financial security, and historically, career planning programs focused on college admissions. However, less than half of occupations in today’s job market require this level of study, leaving many college graduates underemployed and employers having difficulty filling skilled positions.

In the minds of many students and their families, college degrees are associated with a higher social status, and career and technical education (CTE) bears a stigma as a second-tier pathway. In the past, minorities and low-income students were often steered away from college and tracked into vocational training for low-wage occupations, but this is changing as advanced technical skills, particularly in IT and health professions, are in demand and the required skills are greatly valued.

Expanding programs to include multiple career and college pathways will require more than squeezing a few CTE options into an existing college preparation program. It will take a ground-up overhaul, a challenge for any school counseling department. It will also require that students, their families, and other stakeholders discard outdated ideas about CTE and engage with a modern career and college planning program that will align with the demands of the new economy and better prepare students to enter the world of work.

Post-secondary planning programs that give equal weight to CTE and college preparation can better meet the needs of all students by exposing students to multiple post-secondary opportunities. College-bound and non-college-bound students will benefit from programs that offer the full range of career and education options so they can make better-informed choices about their futures. 

What Influences Students’ Career Choices?

Of the high school freshmen who responded to a US Department of Education survey, 83% said that their education and career decisions were mostly influenced by their families or their own beliefs. The survey found that that decision-making followed the same pattern across all social-economic groups, although students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds cited school personnel as their main source of career and post-secondary education information more than their more affluent peers. This points to the need for schools to implement extensive career exploration programs for all students to ensure that they are not limited to options solely within their own family experience. 

Cultural Influences in Student Career Decision-Making 

Dr. Robert C. Chope, founder of the Career Counseling Program at San Francisco State, wrote, “The worldview of the family and culture regarding work must be addressed in the context of career decision making. Some families want children to earn money and be independent. Others want them to achieve. And still others want them to refrain from drawing attention to themselves.” 

The increasing diversity of the US population is represented in classrooms across the country. This brings a vibrant mix of cultures to education. But religion, gender stereotypes, attitudes about work, and family structures also influence student decision-making. The most effective programs consider how cultural backgrounds inform students’ beliefs about careers and post-secondary education. 

Social Cognitive Career Theory: What Guides a Student’s Career Decisions?

Cultural traditions and values are external forces that form a student’s beliefs about the acceptability of different career and education pathways. The social cognitive career theory attempts to describe how a student’s career interests develop, the process that they use to make academic and career decisions, and how students ultimately experience success in their choices.

The social cognitive career theory is based on the social cognitive theory and holds that a combination of three psychological factors guides a student’s choices: self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, and goals. The theory assumes that people prefer to do things that they believe that they can do well. If they have the needed skills and support, students are more likely to pursue careers in which they have strong self-efficacy beliefs. Students who are confident in their math skills are more likely to consider engineering or finance, while students who believe that they are not good at math will reject these occupations as job possibilities.

Inclinations toward a particular profession are tempered by expected outcomes. Students ask, “Will a career in this field pay enough? Will it be rewarding? What kind of work environment can I expect? Will I be respected?” They need accurate answers to these questions, which a strong career exploration program can provide. With complete information, students can set academic and career goals, better enabling their success going forward.

A Developmental Framework for Career Exploration and Planning Programs 

Even before they enter kindergarten, children begin to categorize people and recognize that different adults fill different roles. Their understanding of the world of work and their place in that world grows in sophistication throughout their school years. Linda Gottfredson’s theory of circumscription and compromise attempts to describe how children come to develop ideas about careers and how their self-concepts lead them to reject (circumscribe) certain occupations as unsuitable for themselves based on internalized social messages. Understanding this approach will aid school leaders in incorporating developmentally appropriate activities in a career and college planning program to better engage students.

Gottfredson identifies, by age group, the four stages that children pass through on their journey to identifying and selecting appropriate occupations. 

  • Ages three to five: Children categorize people in the simplest of terms, understanding concepts such as large and small, strong and weak, etc. They come to understand the difference between reality and fantasy and recognize that they cannot, for example, grow up to become a unicorn. They notice that adults hold jobs and are active in the world of work, a place that they will become part of when they grow up.
  • Ages six to eight: Primary-grade students begin to associate a person’s attributes and primary gender with specific occupations. At this point, they may exclude certain occupations from the ones that they want to pursue based on what they observe. For example, if a young boy only sees women working in the public library where he checks out books each week, he may assume that only women can do this type of work, and he will reject library science as a possible career option for himself.
  • Ages nine to thirteen: In the intermediate grades, children begin to recognize social classes and the status conferred by different occupations. Children at this age are growing in self-awareness and based on what they see in their homes and communities, will identify what they believe to be their own social status. They may not consider a career that they think is inappropriate for one in their social class.
  • Ages fourteen and older: High school students begin to align career possibilities with their own interests, values, and aptitudes. They consider occupations that fit with their self-image and reject those that fall outside who they believe themselves to be.

Across all stages, school counselors and a robust career exploration program designed to introduce students to multiple career pathways can mitigate the effects of stereotyping so students are more willing to consider a broader range of careers. 

The Benefits of Getting Students and Families Engaged in CTE Programs 

Less than half of bachelor’s degree-seeking students complete their degree program in four years, and only 63% graduate with a bachelor’s degree after six years. A third of college students change their majors at least once during their first three years of study. According to a Federal Reserve Bank 2021 report, of those who do graduate, about 40% are underemployed, working in jobs that do not require a four-year degree. While going to a four-year college has long been considered the best route to financial security and a bachelor’s degree is necessary for many occupations, as these statistics show, it is not the best fit for everyone. Career and college planning programs that focus primarily on college admissions prep may reinforce biases against CTE.

The most effective programs give equal weight to all post-secondary pathways, including CTE, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, military service, and two-year and four-year degree programs. They ensure that students will have a better understanding of their options and can match their interests and aptitudes with a career path that they find exciting.

Students come to school with a knowledge of occupations that’s limited by what they see first-hand in their families and communities or have learned about from television and other media. Their understanding of what specific jobs entail may be romanticized. For example, television crime dramas depict detectives in exciting pursuits and always solving a case by the episode’s end. They do not show the tedious but necessary work of law enforcement. Students interested in criminal justice or forensic science need to know about the everyday tasks and educational requirements of the field to determine if they genuinely want to be a part of it.

Introducing the real world of work 

Building a strong CTE program does not mean simply expanding CTE options within a program and offering it as an alternative to college. Schools can strengthen their career exploration programs by collaborating with employers to create work-based learning experiences and integrating academics with career-related activities. Ideally, students will graduate from high school prepared for both career and college. Career-day presentations, job-shadowing, and internships give college-bound and non-college-bound students real-world experiences. These activities also have the potential to engage and motivate students in related coursework and career planning. 

Students being more engaged when they set goals for themselves 

If students can explore careers and develop career and academic goals, the evidence is clear that they will learn important skills and become more engaged in their coursework. The process also helps students better understand themselves and their personal learning styles and teaches them how to set and pursue goals, a skill that they will repeatedly use throughout their lives.

In a 2019 Regional Educational Laboratory webinar, Dr. V. Scott Solberg, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Applied Human Development at Boston University, gave an example of how developing individual learning plans, exploring careers, and setting goals can drive learning. He told the story of a Sheboygan, Wisconsin, student.

The young girl ranked in the bottom third of her class and was not engaged in her schoolwork. Her family background did not include college graduates. While completing activities in the district’s individual learning plan program, she took an interest in a biotechnology class and discovered that a hospital setting offered many opportunities that aligned with her interest. During the summer between her sophomore and junior years, she completed a certificate program at a local college that enabled her to work at a local hospital as a dietician aide. Her work experience exposed her to more opportunities in the healthcare field. She decided to pursue a career in nursing, and she took the additional classes in science and math that she knew that she needed. This student, who began high school with a lackluster academic record, received a full scholarship to the local state college.

Solberg said that this story had been repeated over and over across the country. When students have the tools and support that they need, they set goals for themselves and are better able to understand the education/career connection. They are also better informed about the requirements of specific fields and can select classes based on what will further their progress toward their career goals. 

Best Practices: How to Realign Programs to Engage Students 

What truly motivates and engages students? The classic self-determination theory holds that people are naturally “curious, vital, and self-motivated.” But too often, this isn’t evident in the classroom. The research suggests that three psychological factors must be met for people to thrive: a sense of efficacy, a sense of autonomy, and a sense of belonging.

Self-directed learning fills these needs, and in the area of career and academic planning, students who are offered the resources to explore occupations on their own will take a sense of ownership over their learning. Self-efficacy rises when students recognize their growth and can attribute their learning to their own actions. This engagement gives a sense of inclusion within the greater learning community. Students who are encouraged and supported in their search for a life pathway will not feel excluded when they discover that options other than a four-year degree are acceptable and appropriate.

Students can begin their journey with self-assessments to identify their interests, values, aptitudes, and aspirations. This exercise in self-reflection lays a foundation for exploration and goal setting. A strong program will offer students developmentally appropriate activities that will guide their discovery and help them learn of career opportunities that will ignite enthusiasm.

However, the complexity of a program that meets the needs of a diverse student body, one that offers assessments, comprehensive career and post-secondary education exploration, and planning capabilities, may seem overwhelming for school counseling departments already overburdened with high student-to-counselor ratios.  

Challenges to Developing a New Program 

Students and families not embracing non-college pathways

CTE has come a long way from its early twentieth-century origins. Initially, vocational schools sought to meet labor market needs as the US economy shifted from being primarily an agriculture-based economy to a manufacturing one. The conventions of the time often cast minorities and students from low SES backgrounds as not “college material.” These students would be encouraged to follow a narrow pathway of training for a specific occupation. Rigorous academics in preparation for university were reserved for more affluent students. This history often makes CTE less appealing to students and their families today. Jim Stone, the director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education, summed up the problem at an Education Writers Association seminar:

  • “Somewhere back in our educational history, we decided that there are two kinds of knowledge. There is academic knowledge, which we extracted from reality, placed it on a pedestal and we worship. Then there is practical knowledge, which actually makes the world work, but that’s for somebody else’s kids. My kid’s going to college. So that’s the genesis of the problem.”

The No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that schools disaggregate standardized test scores revealed the disparity created by these dual pathways. Many students on a vocational education track were not achieving proficiency in reading and math. At the same time, the new century brought a changed economy driven by advances in technology. Mechanics needed to know more than how to use a wrench; manufacturers needed workers with solid math skills. New industries created new occupations, such as solar and wind technicians, that require advanced competencies.

New federal legislation, such as the Every Child Succeeds Act, emphasized the need to prepare students for college and career, rather than college or career. Yet, Western culture has long held a university education as the gold standard. Changing this mindset is a hurdle that counseling departments must overcome. Non-college-bound students may put little effort into their education unless they are presented with all their options in a positive light. Getting students and families engaged in CTE programs requires equal weight to be given to all pathways so students may see the value in varied post-secondary options.

The need to individualize programs

Given the diversity of any student body, even in largely homogeneous communities, a school program needs to have the ability to individualize instruction—one size does not fit all. Students heading off to college, particularly first-generation college students, need the support of a professional school counselor to search for degree programs, determine admission requirements, complete applications, and secure financial aid. Students whose interests and aptitudes point them toward other pathways need similar support.

Individualizing a career and college program to meet the needs of all students can be a labor-intensive task. On average, the school counselor-to-student ratio is well over the ASCA recommendations. This makes it nearly impossible to regularly meet with each student and adapt learning materials to best serve them. 

Tracking student progress

The theory of circumscription and compromise highlights the importance of students beginning their exploration of careers as early as elementary school, before they permanently reject entire occupational fields. This presents a challenge for school counseling departments. Tracking student progress over several years means that different counselors working in different buildings within a district must coordinate their records. Outdated systems often rely on manila file folders, paper documents, and handwritten notes. Disparate legacy computer programs cannot seamlessly document student work throughout elementary, middle, and high school. Counselors must spend valuable time sorting records to gather data and produce the reports that are often required for state funding. This takes away time that counselors need for their most impactful work: direct student services.

Engaging families

Connecting with families and informing a student’s parents or guardians of student progress so they may become involved and supportive are critical to program success. Many students report that their families are a major influence in their career and college decisions, so family involvement in the career planning process will strengthen a program. Yet too often, these essential stakeholders are often unsure about the role that a school counselor plays in their child’s academic and career decisions. Respondents to the ASCA 2020 State of the Profession survey state that only one-third of parents/families understand what a school counselor does. Further hampering efforts to create smooth school/home connections are inefficient communication systems; a mix of letters home, mail, email, and phone calls make it difficult to consistently engage families in the program.

As the locus of school/home communications, the counseling department may need to develop outreach programs to educate the school community about what the counseling department offers and share program design and goals with families.

Limited time for professional development 

Another challenge to making effective changes to a career and college planning program comes from within the school. In the State of the Profession survey, 29% of counselors cited “finding time for professional development” as a significant challenge, and 31% had difficulty keeping up with new technology. Also, school personnel may be resistant to change. 

These challenges can be met by implementing a district-wide online career and college planning program. 

Harnessing Technology to Empower Students and Streamline Processes 

A modern career and college planning platform such as XAP’s Choices360 turns much of the work over to students. It supports planning for multiple pathways, including college, CTE, and military service. The generation of students in today’s classrooms are comfortable with technology and are accustomed to accessing the internet for information. Students can log into their personal accounts and take assessments, explore career clusters, dig deeper into specific occupations, and investigate post-secondary education options. Once students discover a particular career that they would like to pursue, they can design their four-year course plan to support their career goals.

College-bound seniors can conduct degree program searches, organize their applications, and investigate financial aid opportunities. All students will learn about the different post-secondary education options available, so no one will feel that college is the only route. By independently working through a series of activities, students will better understand themselves and their options for their futures while developing planning, goal-setting, and time-management skills.

Counselors can follow student progress from a central hub. They may organize students by groups and view individual accounts. A robust reporting function simplifies data collection and analysis. A communications page enables counselors to message students and their families. Communications are logged so counselors can keep track of all interactions. Parents and guardians may have access to their child’s records to better understand, engage, and support their child’s progress.

These web-based programs come with standard curricula, but each district has unique qualities that will require modifications to those curricula to reflect the regional labor market and student diversity. The more sophisticated programs enable the counseling department to adjust curricula to meet those needs.

Advanced systems will include an employee-training component, which may consist of online tutorials, webinars, and on-site training programs to get school personnel up to speed. User-friendly, intuitive interfaces will help even the most change-resistant employees understand and welcome the new system.

The demands of a changing economy driven by technological advances and globalization are making college-centric career and academic planning programs obsolete. More than half the jobs in the current labor market require specialized skills and training but do not require a four-year college degree. CTE programs have become more than vocational training to supply factories with welders and car repair shops with mechanics. Although those are undoubtedly in-demand and essential occupations, the skills required for these positions have changed. To be successful, students need to explore all their options so they can choose the pathway that best fits their interests, aspirations, skills, and talents.

Counseling departments across the country that recognize this shift have been updating their programs, but the public’s perceptions of vocational training as a somehow lesser career pathway can be a hurdle. Getting students and families engaged in CTE programs requires a fundamental change in how these educational opportunities are presented.

Innovative career planning programs that utilize the newest technology can help districts overcome the challenges presented by the need for diverse, individualized programs. By adopting a self-directed learning model and tapping into the capability of computers to simplify data collection, organization, and analysis, schools can help students learn to set and achieve their own goals while simplifying tracking, reporting, and communication tasks for school counselors.

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!