Twenty years ago, I was a freshman in high school. I spent the next four years in my assigned seat among the rows of desks, trying to listen to the teacher at the front of the room, completing homework assignments from textbooks, and preparing for tests by making countless flashcards. I was a well-behaved student and earned As and Bs, so most of the adults in the building didn’t pay much attention to me.
I was never particularly excited about any one class. I met with my guidance counselor once or twice; I was confident I’d go to college, but I don’t remember any adults talking to me about career opportunities. It was as if going to college was the end goal, and it didn’t matter what came afterward.
Eight years later, I was back in high school again, this time as a math teacher. I modeled my classroom after the classrooms in the high school I attended—rows of desks, the teacher at the front of the room, nightly homework, and regular assessments. I cared deeply about my students and tried to improve my practice, but I was young and only knew what I had experienced myself.
After I had a few years under my belt, I began collaborating with colleagues to incorporate more projects into my classroom. I turned my room into a crime scene and created a scenario that caused my students to leverage their knowledge of angles to solve the case. My students built bridges and learned the geometrical shapes engineers and architects incorporate into their designs to make them structurally sound. I strived to get to know my students and learn about their home lives, their hobbies, and who they wanted to take to the upcoming school dance.
I realize now that I never asked what my students’ career aspirations were—like I had experienced less than a decade earlier, I just pushed my students to go to college.
Since leaving the classroom, I’ve continued to work in education primarily by empowering teachers and principals to drive improvement in their schools and districts—raising the bar by adopting higher academic standards, figuring out how to increase equity so that students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to go to college, and, more recently, designing programs and curriculum to better prepare today’s students to lead successful lives and careers. For years, I heard much about college and career readiness, but it seems like until recently, those of us who work to improve education forgot about the career readiness part.
Perhaps it’s the increased attention to the changing economy and advances in technology that finally provoked organizations like the one I now work for to rethink how the experiences students are exposed to can help them to better understand what options exist after high school and better prepare for their future.
This September, twenty years after I entered high school, my colleagues and I at America Achieves rolled out “Quest for Success,” a free career exploration course designed to ensure students know about and are prepared for careers of the future. The course takes a project-based learning approach to support students to develop the skills we see employers increasingly demand, like collaboration, communication, and critical thinking.
This is not to say that education beyond high school isn’t important; quite the contrary, as data from Georgetown CEW shows that by 2025, more than two-thirds of jobs will require some level of postsecondary training. This training extends beyond a traditional four-year degree—nearly one-third of those with an associate’s degree earn, on average, more than those with a bachelor’s, and having some postsecondary education results in around $250,000 more in earnings over one’s life.
But it’s important to recognize that employer needs, student interests, and skill development can be better aligned to better prepare today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce. As the economy continues its rapid shifts, and we see new jobs springing up just as quickly as other jobs are lost to automation, it’s time we really think about what we are guiding our students towards.
Are we promoting college for college’s sake? Are we pushing all students towards a blanket goal—one that might not serve their unique interests and aspirations?
Or instead, how will we help our students figure out who they are, what they want to do with their lives, how to develop the skills and competencies to meet their goals, and how to plan for success? Can we guide students to better understand the different career opportunities and aligned pathways available to them after high school, which may include a 4-year degree, but might also include a 2-year program or technical school, apprenticeship, or military service? Can we share information with them about the fastest-growing career sectors in the country, including advanced manufacturing, IT, and healthcare, and the pathways to reach those careers?
If I could go back in time, I’d tell my students that a 4-year degree isn’t the end goal, but rather one path among many, to their personal goals—for what they want to accomplish personally, professionally, and in their communities. I’d guide them to choose a career path that aligns with their values, personal and family goals, and satisfies their appetite for giving back. I’d provide opportunities for them to job shadow, interview, and begin to develop social networks (and a potential mentor) with a “superhero” in their community—someone with one of those service-oriented jobs, like a school counselor or a police officer—to learn about their day-to-day responsibilities, their career path, and their impact.
Of course, I can’t go back. But I can work to ensure that students today have authentic, meaningful learning experiences and have the opportunity to understand themselves, explore careers, and plan for life after high school.