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State Policy Center: What Are College and Career Pathways?

There has never been a better time to enter the workplace with the right skills, and never a worse time to have the wrong skills. That’s why high schools are working to make sure students are prepared with both the academics and the job skills they need to be successful after graduation. 

For much of the 20th century, only a high school diploma was needed to secure a good paying job, but that is no longer the reality for most graduates. Today, 80 percent of good-paying jobs ($35,000+) require postsecondary education and 56 percent require a bachelor’s degree or higher. 

Yet too many students leave school unprepared for those jobs. While 85% of students graduate from high school, only 37% can read and do math at a college-ready level. 

In a growing number of states and districts, schools are connecting what students learn in the classroom to the real world: ensuring they can understand challenging academic content and prepare themselves to enter the world of work. These programs are often called College and Career Pathways. They are an aligned sequence of courses that prepare high school students for college and career success. 

College and career pathways take many different forms, but all of them are working to make sure students are prepared for both college and work. Typically they are: 
  1. Targeted to industries of importance to local economies. Career pathways help both students and the local economy. 
  2. Linked to local businesses. Students in these programs have many experiences with work and with the real-world application of what they are learning.
  3. Open to all students.  Instead of taking a “college or career” viewpoint, pathways programs offer a both/and approach. In pathways programs, all students have a chance to engage in college coursework and to prepare for a future career.  
  4. Designed to give students real-world work experience. Students learn by doing, through class projects, labs, and internships. Classes incorporate rigorous academic content, taught in a hands-on way, with practical applications of the academic content students learn in the classroom.
  5. Developed to incorporate support programs that equip students for a successful transition to college and a career. From help developing resumes to programs to bring disengaged students back into school settings, pathways programs help students complete their education and work preparation goals. 

Here are some examples of college and career pathways:

Linked Learning

The Linked Learning approach integrates rigorous academics that meet college-ready standards with sequenced, high-quality career-technical education, work-based learning, and supports to help students stay on track.

Classes are organized around industry-sector themes. As an example, the Linked Learning program in Oakland, California offers 32 pathways including computer technology, health care, engineering, law, and green energy.  A student’s chosen industry theme is woven into lessons taught by teachers who collaborate across subject areas with input from working professionals. Academic learning is reinforced by linking to work-based learning with real employers. This approach makes learning more relevant to the real world of work, and helps answer the question, “Why do I need to know this?”


Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) programs are innovative grade 9 to 14 public schools that create clear pathways from high school to college and career for young people from all academic backgrounds. In six years or less, students graduate with a high school diploma and a no-cost, two-year associate degree. Upon graduation, students have the academic and professional skills required to either continue their education in a four-year postsecondary institution or enter into entry-level careers in IT, healthcare, advanced manufacturing and other competitive fields.

Dual Enrollment and Early College

Dual Enrollment Programs and Early College High Schools allow students to take college courses while still in high school. Students in dual-enrollment programs enroll in classes through a separate academic institution (typically a community or technical college). Early College programs typically operate as “schools within a school,” offering a wide-ranging curriculum of college and high school coursework in a single program.  Generally, ECHSs are designed to boost the level of preparation for historically underserved populations, including students from low-income families and students of color. Dual-enrollment courses may be offered in a variety of settings, including at traditional comprehensive high schools or on college campuses.

States and districts interested in College and Career Pathways should ensure that all pathways are:

·      Clearly defined and lead to well-paying jobs. Pathways programs should not be an either/or, since students who attend college will also be entering the workforce. 

·      Rigorous. Pathways programs should not be a way to track students into lower-level classes. The workplace demands that all students have knowledge and skills. 

·      Accessible to students from all backgrounds. Successful programs track participation to ensure that all students can participate. They also measure student success after they leave the program, whether in college or in the workplace.