See the role technology plays for counselors to implement equitable school programs for various pathways!
Traditionally, students, their families, and educators have seen a four-year college education as the best way to move up the economic ladder, achieve financial stability, and secure the American Dream. Beginning with the G.I. Bill of 1944, the federal government has implemented programs designed to support students seeking a college degree. High school career and college readiness programs have weighed heavily toward college-bound students.
As recently as 2013, 70% of adults surveyed said that they consider a college education “very important.” However, more than half of the high school graduates pursuing post-secondary education are seeking sub-baccalaureate credentials. In a 2021 Gallup poll, parents said that they want more post-secondary options for their children, a recognition that college may not be a relevant or appropriate pathway for many students.
This change in the value that students and families place on college aligns with current college enrollment statistics. Overall, college enrollment is down 6.5% from 2019. Highly selective private colleges, which serve the affluent, have seen their enrollment figures rebound from pandemic-related declines, but the least competitive public schools, those that generally serve lower-income students, are experiencing sharp drops in enrollment.
The explanation for this is two-fold. The financial blow of the pandemic hit lower socioeconomic-status families the hardest, interrupting education plans and the ability of these families to pay tuition and other college expenses. At the same time, the economic recovery that followed nationwide shutdowns has fostered a labor-friendly marketplace. Job opportunities and wages have increased. Any student reviewing job openings will see that a four-year degree is not the only route to a good income. To provide equitable middle and high school career and college counseling programs, districts may need to reevaluate how they allocate resources to respond to the changing needs of students and the nation’s economy.
Students Need a Diploma and a Plan
The 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Obama’s “Every Student Succeeds,” emphasized college and career readiness. The goals of the administration’s education budget request were “to accelerate student achievement, close achievement gaps, and inspire our children to excel so that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” Schools were encouraged to adopt rigorous academic standards to prepare students for college-level work. In exchange for adopting standards such as the “college and career ready” Common Core, schools would be granted flexibility waivers when it came to meeting accountability requirements set by the No Child Left Behind Act.
This alphabet soup of federal legislation left the task of defining college and career readiness up to the states. Increasingly, states are recognizing that preparing students for success beyond high school requires more than a high school diploma and transcripts that meet college admission requirements. Students need a plan, and that doesn’t have to be college.
Most states require high school students to develop some type of individualized learning plan. In some states, the requirement begins with middle school students. Even without a state mandate, many schools have adopted career and academic planning programs. Though these plans have different names—for example, the Student Success Plan in Connecticut and the Academic and Career Plan in Virginia—they serve the same purpose. They help students identify their interests, aspirations, and academic strengths, and based on this self-reflection, students can set career goals and determine the path that will lead toward their goals.
For many students, these plans will include meeting academic requirements for college admission and rounding out coursework with extracurricular activities to strengthen their college applications. However, just as many students will find their career goals follow a different route.
Post-secondary education for a new era
The rapid growth of technology that ushered in the Information Age changed the American workplace. Computer literacy became a necessary skill in most occupations, and the growth of automation meant robotics could replace unskilled labor. Students needed to develop soft skills, such as critical thinking, communication, and teamwork, to be ready for whatever happened in the job market. This placed an increased emphasis on college, where students were exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking. High school counseling departments often focused on college as a primary goal for students, with the trades seen as a lesser pathway.
Today, a shortage of dockers and truck drivers is bottle-necking the country’s supply chain. Plumbers and electricians are booked months out. Several of the fastest-growing occupations listed in the US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020-2030 Occupational Outlook Handbook, while requiring specialized training, do not require a college degree. These jobs often come with salaries that exceed the national median.
Educators want to see all their students succeed, whether their goals require a baccalaureate or higher degree, an associate degree, career and technical education, apprenticeships, military service, or on-the-job training directly out of high school. High-quality, equitable school programs will ensure that all students, regardless of their career goals, can explore their options and develop a solid plan.
Why Equitable Education and Resources Matter
Without question, college-bound students, particularly first-generation college students, need support from school counselors. Selecting an appropriate major, choosing the right school, meeting academic admission requirements, completing applications, and securing financial aid requires the specific knowledge that falls within a school counselor’s domain. It is understandable that much of a counselor’s time and the school counseling department’s resources are dedicated to these tasks.
Misperceptions about post-secondary education options
The value and prestige that society places on a college degree can lead students and their families to believe that college is the primary or only route to a fulfilling career. This belief may be pushing students into programs that may not be the best fit. Despite all the effort put into college planning, 30% of college undergraduates change their major within the first three years, with 10% switching majors more than once. Of the students that enrolled in a two-year or four-year institution in 2012, on average, only 58% completed a degree within six years, leaving them with student loan debt and job opportunities that didn’t pay enough to meet living expenses and loan payments.
These non-completers may have entered college academically unprepared, chosen a career path that turned out to be a poor fit, or ran into financial difficulties. High school teens moving into adulthood, transitioning from living at home to the new freedoms of dorm life, will naturally acquire new interests, change their expectations for their futures, and develop new goals. More than 40% of the students who left college without a degree may have benefited from a more comprehensive career and college exploration program in high school.
A mismatch between skills and job opportunities
Advances in information technology, the rise of a global economy, and changing workforce demographics as baby boomers reach retirement age have dramatically changed the occupational outlook in the US. The traditional liberal arts education isn’t meeting the needs of businesses or the students that invest four years and thousands of dollars into a baccalaureate degree. An educated citizenry is essential to a functioning democracy, but there are multiple paths to a well-rounded education.
A 2018 review of jobs in America, sorted by educational requirements, revealed that more than half of occupations were “middle-skill jobs.” They require education beyond high school but less than a four-year college degree. The National Skills Coalition compared this to actual education levels in the country and found a skills mismatch, with an excess of college graduates and a shortage of people with training to meet the demands of the job market. This mismatch is creating a shortage of workers in healthcare, IT, advanced manufacturing, and the trades.
High-quality, equitable school programs of career exploration can go a long way toward resolving this mismatch. Equity, in this sense, means that school programs dedicate resources equally to each possible pathway that a student may take. While all students are encouraged to explore two- and four-year degree programs, they also need to be aware of other options for post-secondary education and training.
Middle and high school students are still “trying on” identities, and exposure to a broad range of possible futures will help them in their quest to understand themselves and their role in society. Career and technical programs or military service are often good fits. Exploring these options in middle school and high school can help students develop a self-concept and understand what they truly want in their careers and their lives.
Early career exploration can give students a realistic understanding of occupations and what specific jobs entail. A student’s career choices are often influenced by pop culture. Most counselors working today will remember the surge in criminal justice majors that seemed to stem from the popularity of criminal procedural television shows. Yet, interest waned once students learned that the high drama created by screenwriters didn’t accurately reflect the daily work of law enforcement.
Without a good sense of their career options and which occupations will best meet their combination of interests and abilities, high school students may be swayed more by what their friends are doing rather than by knowledge of what will further their own career aspirations when selecting courses.
High-quality, equitable school programs lead to a plan and a purpose
What algebra teacher hasn’t been asked, “When will I ever use this?” A student’s motivation is linked to purpose. A student who has been exposed to a broad range of career possibilities is more likely to find something that excites them. Course selection becomes purposeful, and students will become more engaged in their coursework, knowing how their education will serve them as they move beyond high school.
What Makes Career Readiness Programs and Curriculum Truly Equitable?
To be truly equitable, a district’s career and college readiness program must reach all students, not just the academic superstars. Since the post-WWII era, the “college for everyone” push was seen as a way to promote democracy. It broke up the caste system that reserved college education and future prosperity for the affluent. Statistics on lifetime earnings seem to support this. On average, those who hold a bachelor’s degree will earn twice as much, over a lifetime of work, than those with sub-baccalaureate credentials. However, statistics don’t tell the whole story. When broken out by occupation, college isn’t the only pathway to a good income.
The belief that a college education is a financial investment that will bring a positive return on investment often holds true, but a healthy income alone is not enough. Ultimately, educators want their students and families want their children to grow and lead happy and fulfilled lives. While it is obvious to adults that income isn’t the sole measure of happiness, students often select a career based on possible earnings, failing to understand the importance of intangible rewards. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs puts self-actualization at the peak. Financial security is necessary, but to reach the peak, individuals need a life purpose.
While for some students, the social experience of college is an important rite of passage, for others, it is not. Students may feel pressured, either by family or social expectations, to go to college. School counselors may open a new world of possibilities with career and college exploration programs that give students the autonomy to explore and choose their career pathways. An effective career and college exploration program encourages self-reflection and offers various assessments to guide students as they identify their interests, values, motivations, personality types, and interpersonal behaviors. These activities are empowering and motivating.
Once students discover a career that piques their interest, they need to develop a path, whether it is through a four-year college program, an associate degree, CTE, on-the-job training, apprenticeships, or military service. School counselors can support this by dedicating resources to developing holistic plans that include course selection, possible dual-enrollment, extra-curricular activities, and volunteer work for college-bound and non-college-bound students.
The Role of the School Counselor
All state education departments have either mandated career and college planning programs or have launched initiatives to promote these programs in high schools and in some states, middle schools. These plans, called by various names (Individual Learning Plans, Student Success Plans, etc.), may include personality and learning-style assessments, career exploration, and course mapping to align classes with academic, career, and personal goals. It falls to the director/coordinator of school counseling to develop these programs and the school counselors to implement them.
The goal of a district’s career development program, as defined in the American School Counselor Association’s (ASCA) “A Framework for School Counseling Programs” is “to ensure all students select a postsecondary path to productive citizenry (e.g. military, career technical certificate or two-/four-year degree program) appropriate for the student.” The role of school counselors, as defined in the Framework, includes:
- Introducing careers and the world of work in the primary grades
- Working with students to identify their interests and abilities and understand how they align with specific career clusters
- Helping students understand the education/work connection
- Advising students on multiple postsecondary pathways
The ASCA Framework emphasizes the importance of developing equitable programs with a school counselor acting in an advocacy role to ensure that students can choose from a “wide array of options after completing secondary education.” Furthermore, counselors/counselor department leaders are responsible for collecting and analyzing data that will reveal any gaps in access to career and college counseling.
School counselors are part of a team of educators, and they need to work with administration and teachers to integrate career and college readiness with the school’s curriculum and work to develop a school culture to support post-secondary planning. For students and their families, the counseling department is usually the main contact for all post-secondary planning, and the counselor is tasked with keeping two-way communications flowing. This is a tall order.
On average, a school counselor’s caseload in the United States is 93% greater than the ASCA-recommended 250 students per counselor ratio. While one-to-one and small group counseling sessions are most effective at meeting students’ individual needs, whole-class lessons are the most practical way of delivering career and college readiness programs. This is not the only challenge that counselors face.
Challenges Facing School Counselors
The patchwork of career and college program mandates across the country confuses the process of program development, implementation, and assessment. A National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) survey found a large discrepancy in awareness of state mandates between school counselors and state-level education officials. While only 66% of states mandate individual learning plans (or some version of), 96% of the school counselors surveyed believed that career and college planning is mandated by their state.
School counselors are often left to figure out on their own how to implement district programs and meet state mandates. Forty-four percent of the NACAC survey respondents reported that they received no training in the use of individual learning plans. To address these disconnects requires district-wide training initiatives led by counseling department leaders. However, as is so often the case in education, time is at a premium. Scheduling professional development sessions cuts into the time that counselors need to meet with students and families, plan lessons, conduct assessments, analyze data, and complete reports.
Keeping Families Involved and Engaged
Students’ choices when it comes to career planning, course selection, and post-secondary education are largely influenced by their families and family culture. The school counselor is the main touchpoint connecting families and schools. Part of a counselor’s role is to engage a student’s parents or guardians with the process, explain a student’s options and identify possible pathways. Ideally, this begins in the middle grades. Yet, less than half of schools responding to the NACAC survey report that annual meetings occur between school personnel, students, and families before ninth grade. This figure improves slightly in the high school years (60% to 66% report having at least annual meetings) but is still inadequate to keep families in the loop.
The NACAC posits that if families were more aware of a district’s college and career readiness program and their state’s requirements, they would become more engaged and initiate communications with their students’ schools. While state education departments could help by launching awareness campaigns, local district counseling departments may also provide information via the school website or social media platforms to activate family involvement.
The greatest challenge facing school counselors is how to ensure that all students are exposed to a wide range of career and college options. This requires counselors to track student progress across grade levels. With limited opportunities for one-to-one sessions, this becomes difficult, particularly in large districts where high school counselors often first meet students in class-sized groups as they are entering ninth grade.
While transcripts and career aptitude tests can give a counselor a general overview, these documents offer little insight into how much students understand about the world of work and the possibilities for their future. The processes of selecting appropriate courses in high school, exploring post-secondary education options, completing applications, and securing financial aid become a paper chase that can bog down the most efficient counseling departments. It leaves little time for inspiring students with expanded visions of possible futures.
Leveraging Technology to Develop High-Quality, Equitable School Programs
The generation of students in school now was born into the Digital Age as mobile technology burst on the scene. These students are comfortable interacting with software and seek answers and explore the world with their laptops, smartphones, and tablets. A comprehensive, computer-based career and college readiness program can offer students the information and guidance that they need in a familiar, easily accessed form. Most importantly, a self-directed career exploration and planning program hands control over to students.
When students take ownership of their academic and career planning and are handed tools to explore a variety of career clusters and encouraged to reflect on their academic and social strengths, personal interests, and aspirations, they are motivated. Once they understand the connection between their education and their aspirations, students’ course selection becomes purposeful. When they understand why they are taking a class and know that it will help them achieve a goal, education loses its drudgery. Students motivated this way can develop a life-long love of learning that will serve them well beyond their years in school.
Ideally, students will be introduced to a program in middle school or even elementary school so they become engaged early in their education and find meaning in their studies. With this technology, school counselors may track a student’s progress and view aptitude assessment data to better understand a student’s values, interests, skills, and learning styles. This enables the counselor to recommend areas that a student may want to explore. The data produced by these programs becomes invaluable during the course selection process. A counselor will quickly be able to identify gaps in skills and knowledge and transcript deficiencies as the student plans for the next school year.
A comprehensive career and college readiness program will include features that students may use to manage their college applications, request recommendations, process transcript requests, and develop resumes, simplifying the process for college-bound seniors. Integrated communication tools facilitate communication between counselors, their students, and families. Parents/guardians will be better informed about their student’s progress and more likely to be engaged in career and academic planning.
With individual student and school-wide data available in one place, usually accessed through a hub-type dashboard, counseling directors and counselors may create robust, actionable reports to measure the effectiveness of the department’s program and create the reports required by state agencies to secure funding.
Career development programs are often geared toward college-bound students, a relic of twentieth-century initiatives and a European education model that equated a university education with affluence and social prestige. High-quality, equitable school programs place equal value on alternative pathways toward a satisfying career to include two-year programs, CTE, apprenticeships, on-the-job training, and military education and service. If all students are to be served, all students must be aware of their options. Having choices will motivate and engage students, and exposing students to more career pathways will help build a workforce to match the needs of the twenty-first-century job market. Technology makes it possible to offer students career exploration opportunities along multiple tracks, while simultaneously bolstering their own sense of autonomy and self-efficacy, which are essential to self-motivation.
There are many commercial careers and college readiness programs on the market. Some come with more functionality than others. When evaluating a program for equitability and appropriateness, school counseling department leaders may wish to consider programs with these features:
- Serves middle school and high school
- Includes career and post-secondary education exploration
- Is self-paced with increasing depth of learning opportunities
- Has multiple, data-based self-reflection/career aptitude assessments
- Has customizable curricula to meet state mandates and unique needs of the district
- Has integrated communication tools
- Has robust data collection and reporting solutions
You can use technology to strengthen your district’s career and college readiness programs and create high-quality, equitable programs for your 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!