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The Next Step - College And Career Exploration Should Get More Attention - And Earlier

Education leaders say they want college and career readiness to be a priority, and a primary goal of education is job preparation, but experts say schools don’t do enough to expose students to career options nor start them on the path to one.

In addition, there is research showing the process should start early and be a significant part of the work that students do.

“This should be a priority in school districts,” says Patti Beltram, director of career and technical education (CTE) for the Peoria Unified School District near Phoenix. “It’s critical for students to begin to learn about careers early and have a chance to explore them through middle and high school.” Beltram is a leading advocate for more college and career exploration in schools and says that she believes more time spent on it will pay off with success in school and throughout life.

There are three significant ways that schools can provide such information to students:  through exposure to colleges and career options in the classroom and throughout the school, through special lessons and online exploration and through special events such as career days or college and career nights.  Here are some ideas about all three:

Make them visible.

At all levels, schools can simply be more aware of explaining to students what certain jobs entail. Any teacher can be discuss the career paths in their subject – from those in physical education and art to math and science.

They can also promote college attendance. At Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Maryland the hallways and rows between lockers are named after regional colleges and other prominent schools nationwide, and teachers are told to display material from their college in their rooms and talk about them with students.

Other schools have teachers wear a sports jersey for their college on a particular day or briefly describe it on the morning announcements. One organizes a faculty basketball fundraiser around teams based on the colleges the faculty members went to.

In high school, teachers can be encouraged to talk more directly to students one-on-one about their thoughts about higher education. Beltram says if it becomes part of the culture to talk about college, and teachers promote such discussions, more students will see it as the norm and be encouraged to explore the options.

A more energetic option is for students to participate in what has now become an annual tradition – The College March, which in December involved 2,300 students in schools in 12 cities. It only encourages students from that class to apply for post-secondary options, but makes such efforts visible to students in lower grades and throughout the community.

Such efforts, however, can begin even earlier. Elementary school teachers and staff can make college options visible and make students aware of the types of colleges, how valuable they are for careers and success and make them fun and exciting.

“More schools are getting students to explore careers and experiment at a younger age,” says Tanya Garcia, associate director of postsecondary policy research at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, and the co-author of a recent report on the need for more attention to college and career guidance. That study spells out successful programs in a number of states.

Get them looking.

There are a variety of ways that students can begin to think about their strengths, weaknesses and interests, including interest inventories and career search tools online.

Virginia’s site for exploration provides tools for students at various levels and California’s Who Do U Want 2 B site provides information about career pathways videos, and a game that helps them explore options. The Georgia Department of Education recommends a “Kid’s Work” site at and the Missouri Center for Career Education has a detailed list of resources for educators that includes a variety for elementary school teachers and counselors.

Launch my career is offered by the the US Chamber of Commerce and the federal government’s  O-Net program has comprehensive job exploration options, including a My Next Move page with an interest profiler and easy-to-use career search engine. The Strong Interest Inventory also provides valuable insight

Have an event.

There are a number of ways to hold career days – from simple talks in classrooms about various careers on a particular day to elaborate rotations for students choosing sessions with people in the community who are involved in a career. Some schools just hold brown bag lunches throughout the year where someone with a knowledge about a career holds a well-publicized, informative session during lunch. The sessions can be video taped and archieved for students to see either in groups or individually at other times.

Trips to colleges are also useful to get students excited about a particular school – or just introduce them to college life, at any age. They are valuable, inexpensive field trips and sometimes colleges will arrange activities or events.

College and career nights are valuable because they bring together students and families to begin thinking about careers (while they are generally most popular in middle school and high school, in one case, an elementary school brought in experts on college savings plans to have parents begin to think about them). They are particularly valuable in schools where parents may not have been to college and need the information or encouragement.  

Carolyn Mulligan, owner of the college consulting firm Insiders Network to College in Summit, NJ, says such programs can provide information and “lessen anxiety for parents and help them participate in a relaxed and organized process.”

“In one night, a well-structured event can answer a lot of questions,” she says.

Mulligan and other experts say counselors and others involved in planning a college and career night should consider these points:

Involve others. Are there experts on any of those topics – independent consultants, financial specialists or representatives from colleges who would present?

Consider topics: generally, experts say, college night events should cover college and career exploration (including how to get the most out of tours) and collecting and comparing college data, paying for college and financial aid, the application and the acceptance process.

Think logistics: Where will you hold it? Will there be more than one workshop or location? Will there be a college fair portion or a location for visitors to collect information? Will you offer food or provide child care? Do you need interpreters or support from other staff? Tech support? Are there conflicts at the school or locally for parents or anyone using the same facilities?  Who needs to approve it?

Will it be interactive?: Mulligan recommends giving participants a chance to work with Naviance or other college information material online. Others allow them to explore Web sites with information about colleges, careers or financial aid.

How will you publicize: The U.S. Education Department offers a detailed description of putting on an event such as this for parents, spelling out ways it can be publicized, including  posters in the school and other locations in the community, announcements, flyers sent home, listserv postings and e-mail blasts from the administration and parent groups, newspaper advertisements and social media. Other experts say counselors should be creative in ways to get the word out – holding raffles or other contests for commitments to attend or a phone bank manned by student volunteers. They should also consider ways to make the theme of the college night engaging – talking about the outcomes such as saving college money or reducing stress by getting good information.

Reach further. Consider ways you can involve families who might not typically make college exploration a priority, Mulligan says. Consider ways to get the message to non-English speaking families or those whose students aren’t on the college track. Provide information about alternatives for all students, including community college or trade school.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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