College and Career Pathways

The What

While there is no universally accepted definition of a College-Career Pathway, the National Center for College and Career Transitions (NC3T) defines it as “an educational program in school – a sequence of inter-connected academic and elective classes (not just CTE classes) — that helps students make a clear connection to college and career opportunities.”

Using national research and data, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) identified six core components for high quality career pathways.  A structured pathway that integrates these core components into a coherent set of strategies and services for participating students ensures the quality of the pathway.  

Graphic: Six core components for high quality career pathways. 1, Career Advising; 2, Labor Market Information; 3, Integrated Instruction; 4, Work-Based Learning; 5, Credential Preparation; 6, Post-Secondary Linkages.

The Why

Boosting Graduation Rates

According to a survey of high school dropouts, “Eighty-one percent of survey respondents said that if schools provided opportunities for real-world learning (internships, service learning projects, and other opportunities), it would have improved the students’ chances of graduating from high school.” (The Silent Epidemic, Gates Foundation; 2006)

In 2005, the graduation rate in Nashville was 55 percent; in 2012, after full-scale implementation of the Academies of Nashville model, the graduation rate was 78.4 percent (Academies of Nashville presentation; 2013). Several other schools and districts implementing a pathways strategy saw similar graduation rate increases of 10 to 15 percentage points.

Improved Academic/Classroom Outcomes

The Linked Learning Alliance reported in 2014 that on its surveys of 11th grade students, the students who participated in a pathways program were:

Increased Student Persistence

Career Technical Education (CTE) can strongly impact educational persistence, as illustrated by researchers such as Kulik; Grasso and Shea; and Plank, DeLuca and Estacion, who found that a ratio of one CTE course to two academic courses minimized a student’s dropout risk (Career and Technical Education’s Role in American Competitiveness, 2013; ACTE).

Academic Gains and College Preparation

A report on students in the California Partnership Academies (ConnectEd, 2008) noted the impact of academies on outcomes in two areas:

Improved Student Lifetime Outcomes

A long-term MDRC study of career academies found that these programs produced substantial earnings gains for participants. Academy students in the study averaged an 11 percent salary increase per year ($2,088). For young men, the increases were significantly higher and totaled almost $30,000 over eight years through a combination of increased wages, hours worked and employment stability. These earnings increases were achieved after more than 90 percent of the academy students graduated from high school, and the results were most concentrated for at-risk populations that are often difficult to impact (The Role of Career Academies in Education Improvement, 2009; ACTE).

The How

The ability to provide students with a range of relevant content in a variety of ways is a hallmark of the pathways approach. Pathways can be offered through a number of high school delivery systems. The use of guiding principles, such as those developed by the Massachusetts Department of Education, ensures the pathways approach maintains the integrity of a course of study that prepares students for postsecondary study and career, while offering communities the ability to center that education around themes that connect directly to their economies.

Guiding Principle 1:  Equitable Access

Pathways should prioritize students underrepresented in education enrollment and completion. To facilitate this, programs should be structured to eliminate barriers to student participation. Design might therefore include, but not be limited to, tuition-free participation, open enrollment without regard to prior academic performance, student supports to promote success, scalability, multiple entry points for students, and student supports to prepare students for entry into the program.  

Guiding Principle 2:  Guided Academic Pathways

Pathways should be structured around clear and detailed student academic course of study from secondary to post-secondary education with regard to coursework, sequencing, and experiences beyond the classroom. Pathways should offer students substantive exposure to career opportunities in high demand fields, allowing them to make an informed decision about which career pathway to pursue.  Students should also be exposed to the authentic experience and academic rigor of postsecondary education. 

Guiding Principle 3:  Enhanced Student Support

Pathways should incorporate sufficient wraparound services to promote academic success and course completion, taking into consideration the needs of diverse populations of students. 

Guiding Principle 4:  Connection to Career

Pathways should expose students to a variety of career opportunities, including greater depth in careers relevant to their selected pathway, by providing, for example, opportunities for targeted workforce and career skills development, career counseling, and elements of experiential and work-based learning.

Guiding Principle 5:  Effective Partnerships

Pathways should include a formal partnership with either an institution of higher education, a workforce development board, or one or more employers or an employer association.  Pathways should be sufficient in size to capture economies of scale goals and to ensure long-term sustainability.

Career Readiness 

Across the continuum of PreK-12, students should have opportunities to engage in career awareness, exploration and planning activities.  

Career Awareness 

PreK / Elementary

Students develop awareness of the world around them as well as their own strengths and abilities and how they connect to career and civic life. 

Career Exploration 

Middle School

Students have opportunities to explore career fields through real- world experiences, which can serve to help  develop their career interests. 

Career Planning 


Students have opportunities to pursue a specific area of study or program along with relevant real-world experiences to prepare for a chosen career field. 

PreK - 12 Career Readiness Resources

Students can explore various careers  or complete a quiz to discover careers that align to their interests. 

Students can explore videos on hundreds of jobs clustered into a range of career fields. 

A resource for employers, job seekers, and youth to learn about the Hawai‘i job market. 

Hawai‘i academies

For several high schools in the Hawaii Department of Education, learning has taken on a whole new meaning.  Through Smaller Learning Communities, schools across the state have begun establishing structures and strategies to personalize education for its students while meeting the needs of the school population and its community.

Smaller Learning Communities are research based and highly focused on providing quality, individualized learning experiences designed to prepare all students for college and/or careers. It offers a personalized learning environment where students are placed in small learning teams based on their career interest. Focusing on career interests allows students to see what they are interested in and not interested in pursuing after high school and gives them the opportunity to take steps in high school that prepare them for the transition.

Each school has a team that consists of an administrator, counselor, content area teachers, and resource teachers who form a system of support and work closely with students to engage them in real world learning that challenges them to demonstrate their knowledge and skills across common core and industry standards. Students are involved in problem based learning, internships, business partnerships, while earning early college credits in high school.

In an effort to strengthen and continue this type of learning and partnerships, high schools across the state have joined forces to create the Hawaii Academies. A critical part of this effort is to develop and strengthen partnerships with industry, the post-secondary community, parents, and government stakeholders. The opportunity for students to gain real world experiences through career speakers, site visitations, job shadowing, mentoring, and internships during their high school years is essential to prepare them for college and career options after high school.

Academy and career pathway resources

Career opportunities information

National academy models

ReferencesConnectEd. (2008). Evidence from California Partnership Academies: One Model of Linked Learning Pathways. National Center for College & Career Transitions. (2014). The Case for College and Career Pathways: A Research Summary.