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A Complete Guide To Building A College And Career Readiness Framework

Building a college and career readiness framework is a big job. That's why we wrote a big guide to help school districts create next-generation CCR

Theresa Rex
Theresa Rex

Oct 11, 2021

College and career readiness is a big concept with a lot of moving parts. Preparing students for life after high school is an inarguably important job — we all want today's learners to be tomorrow's fulfilled, productive citizens, which requires a plan. With 50.6 million students enrolled in public school alone as of 2019, that's a lot of plans.

Keeping everyone on track is no easy feat, and that's why it's critical to have the infrastructure in place to build, track, and execute each student's postsecondary plan. Building a college and career readiness framework that starts when students do (elementary school) and provides the follow-through that supports positive student outcomes once they transition to alumni status is a crucial part of this infrastructure.

It's important to note that the key to a successful college and career readiness framework that supports postsecondary planning in this way is that it's centralized — attempting to manage everything with a piecemeal or cobbled-together "solution" can be frustrating, ineffective, and a poor use of student and support staff time. 

Building A College And Career Readiness Framework At Every Stage

College and career readiness results from instructive continuity. Any college admissions counselor can tell you that attempting to condense the entire spectrum of readiness initiatives into the four years before high school graduation is a recipe for burnout and grief. Everyone benefits when school districts build a college and career readiness framework to support an end-to-end student experience. Here's what college and career readiness looks like at every age and stage.

College And Career Readiness — In Elementary School?

Believe it or not, there is a way to foster a culture of postsecondary planning in elementary school — and that's important. Elementary students are awfully busy learners. They're doing the important job of laying the foundation upon which the rest of their education will be built. 

They're working to understand basic math and literacy concepts, of course, but there's much more going on. They're discovering how to interact with their peers. They're beginning to understand how to learn and how they learn best. They are becoming social creatures, encountering differences for the first time, and discovering things that pique their interests. They are capable of setting goals.

All of this, though it seems far afield of the specifics of college and career planning that older students do as they approach graduation, is very important. 

The name for some of this is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), and providing SEL activities for K-5 students will facilitate the development of social and emotional abilities that become the "soft skills" that are in such high demand in the workforce and so useful for college and career readiness, like:

  • Self-Efficacy - Believing that we can do what's required to get the job done isn't a simple platitude; it's often half the battle. Confidence and persistence are byproducts of this SEL concept, and students begin cultivating these skills in the early grades.
  • Teamwork - Few people are ever in a learning or professional environment alone. The ability to work cooperatively is universally valuable, and it's one of the first SEL concepts that students learn, often through play.
  • Goal-Setting - For very young kids, goal-setting comes from developing impulse control by creating good habits through repetition. It's a skill that will serve them very well as they start to realize their postsecondary goals (college is a big commitment!) Learning to patiently wait for recess or do a classroom job every day lays the foundation for honoring commitments later.
  • Effective Communication - To get what we want and need in any relationship — whether in our educational, professional, or personal communities — we must communicate effectively. Elementary school is where we all begin to learn how to navigate social cues and adjust our communicative abilities accordingly. Additional guidance from adults in the form of a science-backed SEL curriculum helps our youngest learners navigate them. 
  • Empathy - Empathy is a keystone of emotional intelligence, and it's consistently recognized as a core characteristic of effective leaders. What's lovely about elementary-aged students is their incredible capacity for empathy. SEL activities, discussions, and group work celebrates and encourages empathy at a formative moment in students' lives.
  • Decision-Making - Making constructive choices about personal behavior and understanding the consequences (good and bad) of those choices is something most adults are still learning to master. Incorporating it into the SEL curriculum at a young age and weaving it into later college and career readiness initiatives is increasingly a priority for student outcome nerds like us.

Young children are capable of the kind of future-focused self-conceptualization that we're constantly asking students to engage in when we ask them to participate in college and career readiness. Often, they don't even know that they're doing it!

Read More: Coming Soon to SchooLinks: K-5 Tools for Social and Emotional Learning

Creating spaces for them to dream as big as possible and providing an environment that encourages social and emotional learning and exploration are two of the most important things that educators and school communities can do to set students up for resonant, relevant, and rigorous college and career readiness. 

Middle School: Taking Career Exploration To The Next Level

In the middle grades, a context for college and career readiness starts to take shape. Middle school can be identity-making, or at least, it can certainly feel that way! While identities are dynamic things, they begin to emerge in earnest right around this time. Students start to figure themselves out.

Many states have college and career readiness standards and directives that begin in middle school, which makes sense! As students begin to understand their interests and what they excel at and engage in the "mental time travel" that inspires actual aspiration, those directives are simply a way of asking students to apply these burgeoning skills and enthusiasms into a vision for the future. 

College and career readiness in middle school should have a heavy exploration focus in a low-pressure environment. Students are already picking up paintbrushes, athletic equipment, coding languages, and clarinets. College and career exploration at this stage should primarily channel that natural curiosity into a series of questions, like:

  • What do you like to do?
  • What do you think you are good at?
  • What brings you joy? What makes you feel confident? 
  • What feels challenging?
  • What do you want to learn to do better?
  • What's your favorite class? Your least favorite?
  • What do you do in your free time?

It's an excellent time for students to explore what makes them, well, them! Building a college and career framework that supports the middle grades often means implementing assessments. For instance:

Learning Style Assessments

At this point, most students already have an idea of how they learn best, even if they can't necessarily articulate it. Administering a learning assessment can give students a vocabulary for what they already feel is true about themselves. Then, once they understand that they're a kinesthetic (or visual, or spatial, etc.), they can create strategies for getting the most out of school.

Personality Typing

So long as they aren't delivered as absolute and immutable categories, personality typing can also play an important role in college and career readiness for middle schoolers. Meyers-Briggs, Holland Code, and Jungian typing assessments and activities are all useful tools for students who, again, need an expanded vocabulary to describe the ways that they experience the world and relationships. 

Skills And Interest Assessments

For middle schoolers, it can feel bewildering to have to answer the question: "What do you like and what are you good at?" The answer to both questions is crucial to college and career readiness, but even as adults, they can be tough to answer confidently. Skills and interest assessments to the rescue! By providing a series of scenarios and asking students to choose the ones that appeal most to them, you can start a conversation that's far more productive. 

All of these assessments can inform something important — career exploration and discovery. In middle school, we can begin to apply all of these newfound discoveries about the self and present to students a world of fulfilling career options to explore just as we equip them with knowledge about what they know and do best. 

Students don't necessarily want to be ballerinas and astronauts forever. Once they understand how they can apply their unique skills and talents to the workforce, they'll be really ready to dig into exploring new pathways, well-prepared for the high school college and career readiness experience, where they'll start to turn their dreams into actionable plans.

College and Career Readiness For High School Students

Wait, how did high school sneak up on us? How did we go from circle time to study hall, from eighth-grade "prom" to AP Chemistry? Well, we're here. And once we're here, postsecondary life is practically imminent for students. In these upper grades, the importance of building a solid college and career readiness framework becomes most apparent. 

Career Discovery

Career discovery as a foundational element of postsecondary readiness can't be overstated. The "gold standard" of the college-going grad is so ingrained and pervasive that for a while, there was a kind of cultural neglect of everything that happens, well, afterward. 

Encouraging degree attainment above everything else left a lot of Millennials scratching their heads after college commencement ceremonies. A college degree can undoubtedly confer many benefits, but we have to widen the focus. After all, college lasts just 2-4 years for most people. Isn't it more useful for students to consider why they may want to traverse that path?

Helping students really explore their shortlist of careers: what they pay, where they tend to be, and adjacent fields helps place the education and experience that they'll need to acquire along the way into a deeper context. Because Gen Z is more financially pragmatic than their older Millennial siblings, it's no longer enough to say, "Do what you love." A college and career readiness framework that supports secondary career exploration has to include:

Careers That Align With Student Interest Assessments 

This is a great place to start. Often, more careers align with student interests than your standard Occupational Outlook Handbook can hold or the handful of pages in the back of a freshly bubbled Career Aptitude Test might suggest. Make sure your students have access to the avenues that lead to further exploration. 

For instance: as a culture, we love to direct our artistic learners toward graphic design. And that may capture the interest of your burgeoning resident Banksy. But what about Industrial Design, Animation, Advertising or Merchandising, UX, or Motion Graphics? 

Or, what if it would serve that student better to pursue a job that offers a predictable schedule and work-life balance so they can pursue their passion in their own time and decide for themselves whether they want to try to profit off of it? 

Few people are only good at one thing or interested in a single topic. Allowing career discovery to branch out into adjacent and exciting options gives students more options as they consider what they may want to do later in life.

Cost And Quality Of Life: Financial Literacy For High Schoolers 

Every career pursuit has an associated cost, and we don't just mean the sticker price of your basic 4-year degree. Increasingly, the most innovative school districts are adding financial literacy initiatives to the college and career framework they use. That means giving students a way to explore:

  • The cost associated with pursuing the education required for a chosen career
  • How scholarships, grants, and savings defray that cost and how to leverage them
  • How to navigate paperwork associated with the FAFSA, state aid, loans, and more
  • The long-term costs of student loans and how they affect take-home pay, creature comforts, and milestones like home buying or starting a family

This necessarily includes tools that allow students to see where the jobs are, how much it costs to live in the region, and how long those jobs might be there. 

All of this is less splashy simple directives to "Do What You Love" or "Hustle Harder", but they allow students to go into the world clear-eyed and confident in their choices.

Help Students Discover New And Rising Careers

Finally, any college and career framework that doesn't include the careers that are just beginning to appear on the horizon is incomplete. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a valuable tool for students, but it tends to lag a little because it's a snapshot of what is, not necessarily what will be. 

The reason the Career Explorer on SchooLinks includes information from LinkedIn is so that students can get a better picture of which careers are hot and rising fast. It helps students see what skills are just beginning to be in demand and whether those skills align with their own.

College Planning At The High School Level

Now, finally, we get to College Planning. Why? Because it's not always helpful to sort through beautiful private liberal arts schools in Vermont or a public university known chiefly for its football team if you're pursuing a career in data analytics or veterinary medicine. 

The years and money that students spend on school should work toward their end goals, so it makes sense to allow those goals to take shape first. 

College Matchmaking: Helping Students Find A Good Fit

We love U.S. News and their Best Colleges list. It's a great place to start for students overwhelmed by the prospect of sifting through all 5,300 options for postsecondary education in the country today. On SchooLinks, students even have the option to filter college search results by their US News Ranking - it can be very useful. 

But should it be prescriptive? Probably not, unless you need a recipe for sleep-deprived, burned-out, and rejection anxious students. Instead, they should be exploring options that work for them and getting excited about finding a good match and leaving the nest (or commuting from home. Savvy!).

A college and career framework that lets students filter and favorite schools that work for them instead of blindly sending out a ream of admissions essays to "elite" institutions just makes sense. It helps students find a postsecondary education solution that delivers the education or certification they'll need to build their livelihoods and increases the likelihood that they'll ultimately graduate because they're likely to feel they fit in.

For instance, if you had a student who wanted to find an HBCU offering a 4-year degree and a Division I Women's Bowling Team, they can find it in four clicks on SchooLinks. With another click, that student could sort the list by graduation rate (or admission rate, or even EFC) and see that Howard University has everything they're looking for, and explore 15 other schools that do, too. 

Meeting Graduation Requirements With Backward Course Planning

You've probably noticed a theme by now — backward planning. We started with career exploration, worked backward to postsecondary education, and ended up here — high school course planning for college and career readiness. 

This approach is helpful because otherwise, it quickly becomes overwhelming. That's especially true now, as an increasing number of states are adding multiple pathways to graduation, specialty tracks — like Ohio's Diploma Seals or Texas' Endorsement model — CTE and career-ready tracks, dual-credit programs, and individual learning plans. 

Working backward from an overarching goal allows students to break down graduation requirements and pick out elective courses, CTE concentrations, and pathways that best serve their interests and aspirations all while staying on track to graduate on time and future-ready.

Career And Technical Education (CTE) & Work-Based Learning

Additionally, any course catalog and accompanying course planner should treat CTE and college-track pathways as the equally valid options they are. Managing your college and career framework from a centralized location can help you build and support a next generation CTE program for students. 

It universalizes the process for tracking student interest, participation, and progress, for one thing, and it allows CTE coordinators and educators to see how course credits for their departments and buildings fit into the core academic credits students are already taking. For many districts, CTE feels and operates as an almost completely separate entity, causing CTE administrators and teachers to feel like they're "on their own".

Increasingly, students are taking advantage of work-based learning opportunities — usually offered through their CTE concentration, or at least related to it — and there are federal and state mandates associated with tracking those hours. By pulling CTE into the college and career readiness framework as an equal and significant part of student learning opportunities, it retains its rigor and relevance, while 

Advisory Programs And Support Structures

A solid college and career readiness framework is one that understands the role of counselors and respects their time as professionals instead of asking them to pull double-duty as data-entry clerks in an endless maze of Google docs and Excel spreadsheets. That, we know, is easier said than done sometimes.

With a ratio of one counselor to hundreds of students, school districts have a lot to manage, but the advisory and support piece is arguably the keystone component of a school district's college and career readiness framework. It should include:

1:1 Meetings Between Counselors And Students

There's no substitute for a direct conversation with a student, and one-on-one meetings with counselors are where these discussions take place. They provide crucial context, create space for concerns to be addressed, and allow students to speak candidly about their postsecondary plans, school experience, and even personal challenges.

For many students, the school counseling office may also be the sole entry point for mental health services, a fact that's become starkly apparent these past 18 months. Having a system for one-on-one meetings that makes the most of both participants' time and outlines next steps for students — whether in their career discovery process or when it comes to a personal challenge — will be what separates a good college and career counseling framework from a great one.

For instance, SchooLinks allows students and counselors to request virtual 1:1  meetings, respond to those requests immediately, and record the "next steps" those meetings produce all from the same central location.

CCR Event Coordination And Planning

Every school district needs to be able to deliver important information and opportunities to the students who need, could benefit from, or might be interested in them outside of one-on-one environments. Having the ability to easily plan — and execute — FAFSA nights, Opportunity Fairs, and College Rep visits for students when they need them most isn't ancillary to college and career readiness. It shouldn't be ancillary when it comes to your framework, either. 

Alumni Outreach And Networking

The whole point of preparing students for life after graduation is to give them the best chance of success when they get there. You won't know if what you're doing to prepare them is actually working unless you have a way to follow up with them. Alumni outreach doesn't just allow districts to collect and measure outcome data, either. Current students benefit from a healthy alumni network, too.

Current students benefit from the near-peer mentorships, college and career information sessions led by someone who has firsthand knowledge, and simple representation that alumni relations can provide. When it comes to your former students, especially those in underrepresented student groups, having a firm connection to the school community can help sustain important relationships and drive positive outcomes, too.

Collecting And Analyzing Student Data To Improve College And Career Readiness

If you think of your college and career framework as a literal framework, imagine what would happen if you set it up and then never touched it again. Would it be just as functional and strong in a year? Five years? A decade or more?

Probably not. As with any other framework, the college and career readiness structure has to be built upon, maintained, and repaired or upgraded from time to time. One of the most important tools school districts use to do this is data. To some extent, every school district has to collect and report on demographic, performance, and outcome data according to state and federal accountability metrics.

But for schools that are hoping to future-proof their college and career readiness initiatives and departments, meeting state mandates is just the tip of the iceberg. Data-forward districts leverage student data to create informed goals for the school year, build whole-child report cards, boost FAFSA completion rates, and create a "portrait of a graduate" to demonstrate their college and career readiness vision. 

That's hardly a complete list, of course, but it demonstrates the breadth of use cases for improving preparedness with data.  Some districts have accountability departments or data specialists to facilitate acting on the data they collect, but not having those resources doesn't mean school districts have to forego their benefits!

Edtech is increasingly the vehicle for college and career readiness data collection and analysis, narrowing the "data gap" between districts and leveling the playing field for students. For instance, on SchooLinks', simplified data dashboard views make student data accessible to the counselors and educators that can make the most impact. Counselors and CTE coordinators can navigate between cohort and individual student data with just a few clicks, and school districts can configure accountability metrics to track, well, just about anything.

Determining what that will be comes down to asking some basic questions, for example:

  • How do we measure college and career readiness for every student?
  • How do we track progress toward college and career readiness goals?
  • What's the best way to make sure every student meets graduation requirements?

...and then building and updating the college and career readiness framework to answer those questions.

On SchooLinks, each piece of the college and career framework you build can work together, all on one modern and centralized platform.

  • Engaging student activities keep students in charge of and invested in their postsecondary plans.
  • Planning modules align their interests to actionable next steps.
  • Alumni, family, and industry partner portals bring every stakeholder to the table. Configurable accountability metrics and real-time activity tracking takes student data out of the silo

When you build a college and career readiness framework on SchooLinks, everything works together to turn student dreams into actionable plans.

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Theresa Rex

Theresa Rex is the content marketing manager at SchooLinks. She is a first-generation college grad and an absolute nerd for equity and em dashes.

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