Unlocking Futures: Why Every School Must Embrace Career-Connected Learning

A clarion call from the White House to state houses and communities is rising – calls for an urgent and long-overdue shift in educational practice and focus from “college for alli” to “Career-Connected Learning.”

Decades of research proving the power of career relevance in education to promote engagementii, motivationiii, persistenceiv, performancev, and retention of informationvi were met with a collective “ho-hum” from too many in educational establishments that simply refused to answer the question students have asked for a century, “When will I ever use this?” Instead, the education community kept championing the path they had been on: go to school, to go to college, to go back to school to teach. Real-world relevance is lost in many traditional high schools. The school environment became siloed: academic teachers for “college goers” and CTE teachers for those who weren’t. There were exceptions for students in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs who graduated high school at well above 90%vii, as well as Early College High Schools (86%)viii. Those students were also more likely to persist into and through collegeix and engage in higher-income careersx. But even greater engagement with CTE programs was stunted by accusations of “tracking” students of color and low-income students into non-degree-seeking pathways.

A fundamental disconnect exists between academics and career preparation when educators lose sight of the true destination. College is not a destination; it is a path for many on the way to a career, and all students should be prepared to step into their career of choice.

What we see in the country today are the results of this perpetuation of failure to answer students’ core question, “When will I ever need to know this in the real world?” The very educational system that holds the key to transforming the economic future of students is plagued with inequities, deeply affecting students of color and low-income students the most:

  • Academic proficiencies post-pandemic are the lowest in decades, with dramatic gaps for students of color.xi
  • Only 11% of students from the bottom income quartile will earn a degree in six yearsxii.
  • 37% of students who start a four-year degree don’t earn it in six years.xiii
  • 66% of students who start a two-year degree don’t earn it in three years.xiv
  • Those with the lowest incomes have the lowest educational levels and are disproportionately people of color.
  • Trillions of dollars in student loan debt with 52% of college graduates holding jobs that didn’t require a degree.xv
educational attainment by race or ethnicity

Employers were the first to signal that something was deeply wrong with education. More than a decade ago, the National Soft Skills Association in 2010 cited a lack of “soft” or employability skills in young talent [American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) The State of the Industry Report (Green and McGill, 2011)]. Employers found that young workers couldn’t solve problems and could not think critically. In 2012, the Harvard Business Review asked the question, “Who Can Fix the Middle Skills Gap?“– a concerning and growing shortage of technically skilled workers like those in construction, engineering, healthcare, and other fields because millions of students were only being directed to pursue four-year degrees.

As workers began to retire, there was no young talent to replace them. Desperate employers took on the role of educators, training prospective and new employees on the skills needed to be successful in their workplace. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation took a leadership role in helping businesses address their workforce crises, founding the Talent Pipeline Management approach and comprehensive support “to advance authentic employer leadership in building high-performing talent pipelines.”xvi

Workforce development was already emerging as a national crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the outbreak, millions of “nonessential” workers were sent home, and far too many left the workforce entirely with no plans to return.

In many ways, the conditions are ripe for young workers to step into jobs and careers that might not have been available to them before, especially after the “upskilling” bias employers embraced after the 2008 recession. In many ways, the job market is resetting itself, even in the face of AI and technological advances, but without young talent ready to take on these roles, opportunities are being lost.

Career-Connected Learning Can Shape Tomorrow's Workforce

The U.S. Department of Education has made an urgent call for career-connected learning (CCL). This initiative calls for schools to adopt a culture that helps all students understand the depth and variety of career pathways. To support this call to action, teachers need to instill relevance in the classroom by embedding careers into their teaching.

Pathway2Careers is embracing this challenge by coming alongside states, districts, and education cooperatives to embed career-connected learning solutions. Our products and services cohesively orbit career-connected learning. Everything aligns with our ability to engage learners and bring purpose to their learning. When we do this right, we provide educators with the tools needed to build successful career paths for all students.

The P2C Career-Connected Learning Suite is comprised of solutions that tie academic content to real-world applications, boosting engagement and equipping learners with a broader perspective of potential career paths. Backed by industry-leading research, P2C can narrow the achievement gap and lead more students to successful careers. Learn more about our CCL suite of products.

The comprehensive nature of Pathway2Careers ensures our partners have the products and services required to establish a career-connected learning culture and can extend this initiative to create dynamic, supportive career-connected communities that can have a profound economic impact on students, families, and their communities at large.

i Meeder, H.; Pawlowski, B. (2020). Preparing our students for the real world: The education shift our children and future demand. National Center for College & Career Transitions. https://cica.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Preparing-Our-Students-for-the-Real-World-021720.pdf.

ii Hodges, T. (2018 October 25). School engagement is more than just talk. GALLUP. https://www.gallup.com/education/244022/school-engagement-talk.aspx.

iii Frymier, A. B., & Shulman, G. M. (1995). “What’s in it for me?”: Increasing content relevance to enhance students’ motivation. Communication Education, 44(1), 40–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634529509378996

iv Trautwein, U.; Ludtke, O. (2007). Students’ Self-Reported Effort and Time on Homework in Six School Subjects: Between-Students Differences and Within-Student Variation, Journal of Educational Psychology. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ766336

v Hulleman, C. S., & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326(5958), 1410–1412. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1177067

vi Perin, D. (2011). Facilitating Student Learning Through Contextualization, Community College Research Center. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED516783.pdf

vii Perkins Collaborative Resource Network. (nd). Customized consolidated annual report. Association of Career and Technical Education. https://www.acteonline.org

viii Berger, A. et al (2013). Early College, Early Success: Early College High School Initiative Impact Study. American Institutes for Research. https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/ECHSI_Impact_Study_Report_Final1_0.pdf

ix U.S. Department of Education. (2019, September). Bridging the skills gap: Career and technical education in high school. Retrieved from https://www.2.ed.gov/datastory/cte/index.html

x Ibid.

xi The Nation’s Report Card.(2022). https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/ltt/mathematics/student-group-scores/?age=9.

xii Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education (2018). Indicators of higher education equity in the United States.http://www.pellinstitute.org/downloads/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_US_2018_Historical_Trend_Report.pdf.

xiii U.S. Department of Education. (2020-2021 winter). (2020-2021 winter). Graduation rates component. National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (PEDS). https://nces.ed.gov/FastFacts/display.asp?id=40

xiv Ibid.

xv The Burning Glass Institute & Strada Education Foundation (2024). Talent disrupted: College graduates, underemployment, and the way forward. https://stradaeducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Talent-Disrupted.pdf?utm_source=StradaEducation.org&utm_medium=Website&utm_campaign=TalentDisrupted&utm_content=DownloadButton%20.

xvi U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (2015). Building the Talent Pipeline: An Implementation Guide. https://chamber-foundation.files.svdcdn.com/production/documents/Building-the-Talent-Pipeline_An-Implementation-Guide_V2.pdf?dm=1704748796

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