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College and Career Pathways: An Overview

Today’s high school students are preparing for a future that would have previously have been considered science fiction.

The options these students will have for where they work, what they do with their time, and how they live their daily lives will only continue to change over the coming decades. They already navigate their lives in a way that is more technologically sophisticated and more globally connected than previous generations ever could have dreamed. However, as this generation deepens their engagement in their communities, politics, social issues, and the broader world, their engagement in our nation’s educational system has stagnated. For example, a recent poll from Gradient Learning reported that 80 percent of educators are concerned that students are not engaged in what is being taught in our classrooms. Policies that develop, sustain, and expand access to college and career pathways offer the opportunity to build meaningful educational paths that engage students as partners in their learning, provide access to advanced academic content, and the chance to build work-based skills and experiences so students can make real world connections to what is happening in the classroom. 

In a world where information is at their fingertips, students are increasingly questioning the systems they have inherited, including our education system – and their place in them. Students are concerned that the skills they are learning in both K-12 and postsecondary education are not connected to their future career prospects, and they have legitimate fears about the cost of postsecondary education in the face of persistent economic challenges. They have more insight into unique and diverse career fields, such as climate science and sustainability, than ever before, but still lack personalized guidance on how to select and build towards their passions and goals. These factors paired with the historic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in postsecondary enrollment declines nationwide. 

These challenges have only served to exacerbate inequities and widen gaps in access to high-quality educational opportunities that contribute to generational inequalities for historically underserved students. For example, while access to academic and career counseling can have a deep impact on students,  according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, Latinx students were 1.4 times more likely to attend a school with a law enforcement officer and no counselor than White students, and Black students were 1.2 times as likely. Disparities such as these are reflected in inequities in postsecondary enrollment, as well as access to high-quality, early college opportunities. 

These challenges are understood by educators and administrators across the system, but their insight and experience is often absent from policy and funding debates taking place in legislatures nationwide. Additionally, the direct voices of high school students are often not seen as the valuable resource they are in navigating these challenges in a quickly changing world. This is a generation of incredible potential, but our system needs to meet these students where they are—hungry for opportunity and real-world application. We need to engage them as partners in their educational and career journeys. 

College and career pathways are not new concepts, but they have gained increasing attention in recent years as schools, districts, and education systems have sought to build less siloed and more cohesive systems that follow students as lifelong learners. These pathways systems offer different educational models that are as unique as each individual state, and must be expanded to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to benefit. Additionally, the work on college and career pathways comes in various forms. Major efforts can be made to implement large, impactful systems, such as new funding streams to realign high school and higher education.  Moderate policy changes that can have an outsized impact for learners are also necessary, such as data transparency and better credit transfer. 

All4Ed offers a set of policy proposals accompanied by model legislation. These proposals provide state policymakers with solutions for developing, strengthening, and sustaining college and career pathways work nationwide. These policies include: 

Establishing flexible funding streams for integrated college and career pathways

  • While conversations around work-based learning and offering postsecondary credit-bearing courses in high school are not new, too often these become debates that require students to choose between college and career. The current economy requires participants who have strong work-based skill sets from day one, as well as deep academic knowledge and critical thinking abilities. Students need access to sequenced, integrated pathways that offer opportunities to explore career possibilities, deepen academic knowledge and skills, and develop work-based skills and applications for the curriculum they are learning in the classroom. Although there are programs offering dynamic college and career pathways for students, most students are not currently enrolled in schools that offer fully integrated programs. 
  • State policymakers can address this by developing competitive grant funding for local educational entities, like school districts, to build, strengthen, and expand college and career pathways that incorporate early college academic opportunities and meaningful work-based learning for all students. 

Ensuring data collection and transparency as strong fiscal stewards of taxpayer spending

  • Regardless of the current status of your state’s college and career pathways, data is critical for developing, sustaining, and refining a system that truly works for students. While many states have methods of collecting data on education, often this data is siloed (for example, early learning under one data system, k-12 under another, and higher education and career under their own systems), not publicly available, difficult to access, challenging to understand, and sometimes incomplete. To understand whether policies are serving students as intended we need to see data that follows students across the education spectrum and into their career paths. We also need access to data broken down by gender, race, ethnicity, English learner status, disability status, and geographic location. This data empowers lawmakers by providing them with the means to enact policies where they are most needed and to serve as good fiscal stewards. It equips them with the information needed to improve  policies that are not having the intended impact for students and practitioners. 

Meeting the promise of early college opportunities through strong, transparent credit transfer policies

  • While many states offer opportunities for high school students to earn postsecondary credit before graduation, these policies do not always guarantee that the earned credits will transfer meaningfully towards a student’s future degree or educational pathway. Ensuring that credits actually transfer with students as intended is critical to fulfilling the promise of early college credit: to decrease the overall cost and time to earning a postsecondary degree. 
  • Transfer credit is not only an issue for high school dual and concurrent enrollment students. Many postsecondary students face difficulty transferring credits or full degrees during their academic career. According to a nationwide analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, more than one-third of first-time college students transfer schools over a six-year period. In the process,  they lose an average of 43% of their college credits when transferring between postsecondary institutions. 
  • States have addressed credit transfer policies in many different ways, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to credit transfer policy. State policymakers who wish to work on strengthening credit transfer for both postsecondary and early college high school students  in their states can pursue:
    • Creating a 30-credit sequence of courses that are guaranteed to transfer to all public state postsecondary universities as general education requirements once a student has successfully completed the sequence. This would allow guaranteed transfer between high school and postsecondary education, as well as from one institution, such as a community college, to another, such as a four-year university, without requiring a student to have a completed associates degree. 
    • Developing multiple postsecondary credit sequences that allow students to lock into a guaranteed 30 transfer credits (as detailed above) or to complete 15 postsecondary credits and additional transferable credits towards an industry-recognized credential or apprenticeship program. 
    • Publishing transparent, user-friendly information about how all early college courses (e.g., AP/IB, dual and concurrent enrollment) transfer into the state’s public postsecondary universities, helping students and families make informed decisions upon enrollment. Additionally, such a system can be used to broadly provide information on transfer to postsecondary students throughout the state’s public community colleges and universities. 

Our dedicated state policy and government relations team would be happy to discuss in more detail or to provide additional technical assistance in implementing the above proposals or other policy proposals related to college and career pathways in your state. Please reach out to Jenn Ellis at to start the conversation!

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