Career- and college-ready: Are they synonymous or different?

Like cream and sugar, or ice cream and cake, college and career ready roll off the tongue together as any good platitude should. In adopting the Common Core standards, California and other states agreed students graduating high school should be prepared for college and careers. Educators have been arguing ever since what that means. If not the same, then how is career readiness different from college readiness, and how should it be measured? We’ve asked five experts with different perspectives to share their views: the husband-and-wife team of Robert Schwartz and Nancy Hoffman, he of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and she of a national nonprofit focusing on workplace and education for low-income individuals; Robert Balgenorth, a union leader in the construction trades; Barbara Nemko, Napa County superintendent of schools; Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd, the California Center for College and Career; and Devin Blizzard, CEO of much-acclaimed CART, the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, an academic career technical school in the Central Valley. We encourage you to share your views as well.

Schwartz, Hoffman: Early career counseling, job shadowing for all

Robert Schwartz

Robert Schwartz

All young people graduating high school “college and career ready.” Sounds great, but what does it mean? In California, at least, college-ready means meeting a set of course requirements prescribed by the UC and CSU systems, even though those institutions serve, at best, only a quarter of an age cohort. But what do we mean by “career-ready?” Because there is no parallel attempt by California’s business and industry leaders to broaden academic requirements to demonstrate their application in the work world and to add 21st century skills and activities that develop career-readiness, the phrase turns out to be a

Nancy Hoffman

Nancy Hoffman


If we were serious about creating policies to serve all kids, we would put career planning and experience in a variety of workplaces at the center of this discussion, not at the margins. After all, only about half of young people who start a two- or four-year degree actually complete one, but all young people, we hope, are going to go to work.

Our education system should help all young people make informed decisions about the career paths they want to pursue, even if they may change careers later. Young people these days have little work experience and few opportunities to learn to work. Yet we behave as if preparation for college is the main purpose of high school, rather than explaining to young people that college is a pathway to a career, and that they need to take courses that equip them with skills and credentials with value in the labor market.

If we were serious about career readiness, we would bring together employers, post-secondary educators, and K-12 leaders to design pathways in grades 9-14 that have recognized currency in the labor market. We would invest in career information and counseling for all students beginning in the middle grades. We would require, as the French and German systems do, that all students have at least two weeks of job shadowing or other workplace exposure before they enter high school.

We have learned from the highly successful Early College High School movement, now serving 77,000 students in 28 states, that the best way to ensure “college readiness” is to enable students to start taking college classes while they are in a supportive high school environment. Analogously, the best way to ensure career readiness is to provide workplace experience in the context of 9-14 career pathways. California has some great models in Linked Learning and Partnership Academies, but they serve far too few students.

Nancy Hoffman is a vice president and senior advisor at Jobs for the Future, a national nonprofit in Boston focused on improving educational and workforce outcomes for low-income young people and adults. Her most recent book is Schooling in the Workplace: How Six of the World’s Best Vocational Education Systems Prepare Young People for Jobs and Life.

Robert Schwartz is the Francis Keppel Professor of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he co-leads the Pathways to Prosperity Project. He was an education advisor to the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts, and served as first president of Achieve.

Robert Balgenorth: Restore value to ‘the other 4-year degree’

Robert Balgenorth

Robert Balgenorth

For years now, the construction industry, the manufacturing sector, and even auto mechanics have been clamoring about the need for students to graduate high school ready to work in our industries. Contrary to popular belief, these are not low-skilled jobs. Rather, they require significant knowledge of mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, physics, and computer science.

Today’s plumbers, electricians, and sheet metal workers are learning to use Building Information Modeling, a highly specialized computer program that illustrates the location of every wall, pipe, and outlet before a building is even built. Ph.D. computer scientists aren’t the ones doing the modeling; this work requires journeyman sheet metal workers and pipefitters who have come up through the apprenticeship system.

The construction industry has been using apprenticeship programs to teach skills to young people for the last century. They work under the tutelage of journeymen for 3-5 years while going to school to learn the theory behind what they’re doing on the job. Each of the 15 building and construction craft and trade unions, working in partnership with union contractors, operate joint apprenticeship programs that have provided the United States with the best-trained construction workforce in the world. These programs are overseen by the California Division of Apprenticeship Standards.

Because so many school districts have dismantled their vocational training and industrial arts programs, students are no longer introduced to what might become their lifelong careers.

Studies show that many students drop out of school because their classes aren’t interesting, and don’t seem relevant to their lives. Apprenticeship programs routinely report a 50 percent failure rate among those taking their basic math entry exam. Those test-takers were inspired to enter a construction career path, but are lacking the educational basics. If math, English, and science could be applied toward specific career goals, students might be more motivated to stay in school, and more prepared to enter careers upon graduating. Career Technical Education can provide that spark for students.

Only 20-25 percent of students will attend a four-year college, and when they do, they will rack up tens of thousands of dollars of debt before even landing an entry-level job. Apprenticeship is free, and offers students an opportunity to learn a skill while earning a paycheck.

That’s why we call it “the other four-year degree.” We fully support CTE because we need students to be prepared to enter apprenticeship and learn skills for our construction industry when they graduate.

Robert Balgenorth is president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, and Co-Chair of the GetREAL-California Coalition (Relevance in Education and Learning).

Barbara Nemko: Inform students on all post-high-school options

Barbara Nemko

Barbara Nemko

The terms “college and career readiness” are often seen as synonymous, but are they? It’s relatively easy to understand what “college-ready” means: academic skills sufficient for the rigors of college work. “Career-ready,” however, is often left undefined. At a time when “college for all” appears to equate to “student success,” it is important to explore what “career-ready” means.

Pathways to Prosperity,” a recent Harvard University report, argues that expecting all students to go to college is short-sighted. The report indicated that 63 percent of jobs do require some form of post-secondary education, but it also showed that many students who complete a post-secondary graduate program have given little thought or preparation to their career interest. How do we prepare high school graduates to be college- and career-ready?

Career readiness includes three major areas: core academic skills, and the ability to apply those skills to real-world situations and in routine workplace activities; employability skills (critical thinking, problem solving, communicating, and responsibility) that are essential in any career/life area; and job-specific skills related to a specific career pathway.

Career readiness provides a foundation that all students need to make informed decisions about their post-high-school options. These include post-secondary education, entry-level employment, apprenticeships, or military service that will lead to self-sufficiency and the attainment of the student’s aspirations, career, and life goals.

In today’s world, every student in California must have the knowledge and skills to make appropriate choices and successfully manage their careers throughout their lifetime. Graduating from high school both college- and career-ready will make that possible.

We need to enact  changes to our accountability system to address more than just standardized test scores. Proposals like Sen. Darrell Steinbergs’s SB 1458, redefining the state’s accountability measures, hold the promise of expanding the scope of what we value and therefore measure in our schools – while creating incentives for districts to expand the programs and curriculums to help our students become career-ready. High School Accountability Report Cards (SARCs) should be required to include the percentage of students who are graduating career-ready, so that parents start to monitor whether or not schools are addressing this critical life skill.

The California State Plan for Career and Technical Education already has tools that can help districts and local school sites measure the status and effectiveness of their CTE programs. Existing quality criteria identified in the State Plan provide a great foundation on which to build a more comprehensive and responsive accountability system.

Policy leaders must pay attention to the need to strengthen the “career-ready” status of all of our students in meaningful and effective ways. We can no longer afford to ignore the reality that employability and career readiness do matter – for the economic growth of our citizens and our state.

Barbara Nemko has been the superintendent of schools for Napa County since April 1997. She served on the Transition Team for State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and is currently a member of his Technology Task Force. In previous administrations she served on several state boards including the State Plan for Career and Technical Education and the Master Plan.

Gary Hoachlander: Talk about college, career readiness together

Gary Hoachlander

Gary Hoachlander

College- and career-ready: as we dig into the new rhetoric surrounding today’s high school graduates, I hope we will focus on the word “and.” By exploring the intersections and connections between college and career readiness, we have the opportunity to expand our thinking about effective learning in both the classroom and the workplace.

An example: At a Health Careers Academy in a southern California high school, seniors spend three mornings a week in a group internship at local medical facilities. One morning I observed student interns at Kaiser Permanente learning how to perform electrocardiograms. Collaborating with the students’ classroom teacher, a physician’s assistant walked the interns through how to attach electrodes to the body and how to read the electrocardiogram results.

That afternoon, back in medical sciences biology class, the students focused on the human cardiovascular system and the role electricity plays in regulating the heart. They learned how different forms of heart disease can interfere with this electrical system, and they dug deeper into electrocardiography and related technologies such as pacemakers and artificial hearts.

This strong connection between real-world learning at a working hospital and the related academics later that afternoon in biology class did not, of course, happen by accident. It took a thoughtful, skilled teacher to structure that engaging learning experience and help her students integrate their hands-on experience with a classroom lesson.

We call this kind of integration Linked Learning, an approach that transforms students’ high school experience by bringing together strong academics, demanding technical education, and real-world experience. We know that high-quality Linked Learning produces greater student engagement, improved achievement, and a higher likelihood of postsecondary enrollment and increased earnings.

Presently this kind of learning tends to happen in spite of the system rather than because of it. Making it an integral part of student learning will depend on broadening our current accountability measures beyond standardized test results in isolated academic subjects. In the long run, this will require new balanced assessment methods that gauge student performance on interdisciplinary projects and industry-generated design challenges.

In the short run, we can look at ways to expand California’s Academic Performance Index to recognize such things as a juried student project, an internship evaluated by industry professionals, or completion of a certified Linked Learning Pathway or an integrated program of study offered through California’s Partnership Academies, Regional Occupational Programs and Centers, or standards-based career and technical education career pathways.

By connecting college and career readiness, we can change teaching and learning in ways that help today’s young people leave high school prepared for lasting success in both postsecondary education and career – no longer just one or the other.

Gary Hoachlander is president of ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career. He began his career as a brakeman for the Western Maryland Railroad and, since completing his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, has devoted his professional life to helping young people learn by doing – connecting education to the opportunities, challenges, and many different rewards to be found through work. To learn more, visit

Devin Blizzard: Blend specific sector, broad interpersonal skills

Devin Blizzard

Devin Blizzard

True career readiness demands that an individual possess complex, vocationally tied individual assets. Having been a STEM and Career Technical educator since 1998, I can offer a perspective from workforce employers and young professionals.

Not surprisingly, work ethic and interpersonal skills remain relevant.  Employers increasingly demand employees who can contribute to productive teams. Learning aptitude, responsibility, passion, perseverance, organizational skills, and professional appearance continue to be held in high regard. Organizations are increasingly investing in employees who demonstrate problem solving and innovation skills.

Employers understand that substantial investments must be made in college graduates to develop them into valuable contributors. Employers are also expressing concern that potential workforce members frequently do not possess the specific skill sets to serve jobs in their regions. In the Central Valley, a skills mismatch exists between a workforce formerly heavily invested in construction and employers seeking skilled machinists, medical technicians, automotive technicians, and other specialized tradespeople.

Deciphering the functional meaning of true career readiness should be done career by career. Only then may we responsibly develop ways to measure competencies aligned with employee success in a specific field. There is a growing trend to develop policy and fund initiatives that support a general career readiness ideal.

Because the career readiness construct is such a general term, any endeavor to quantify it will be at best a generic approximation. These things said, attempts to develop an exam grounded in career readiness and a national set of Common Core standards hold promise to be much better than our present arsenal of standardized tests.

Traditionally, standardized tests have surveyed students for their breadth of knowledge. I believe improvements are on the horizon. The SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium is endeavoring to build a next generation of assessments aligned to English Language Arts and Mathematics. Their aim is to infuse real-world-aligned problem solving tasks and simulated project-based elements in an assessment that  can be administered economically online. It’s ambitious, and the new test’s architects admittedly don’t know how they’re going to do these things. But it’s promising to see test developers aspiring toward a better instrument.

We are moving strategically as a nation toward better assessments of global career readiness. Successful prototypes should inform instruction and learning. A score on a singular readiness assessment should never serve as the scorecard by which society determines who is invited to access college, career, or the global competitive economy.

A school administrator for two decades, Devin Blizzard is the  chief executive officer at the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART), an academic career technical education pathway school that is operated jointly by Clovis and Fresno Unified School Districts. He has served as the director of the Central Valley Robotics and FIRST senior mentor since founding CVR in 2002. He has presented at regional and national STEM, Career Technical, and Model Schools conferences.

15 thoughts on “Career- and college-ready: Are they synonymous or different?

  1. CarolineSF

    What Robert Balgenorth says makes sense, but I wasn’t aware of this being part of the public discussi0n:
    “For years now, the construction industry, the manufacturing sector, and even auto mechanics have been clamoring about the need for students to graduate high school ready to work in our industries.”
    What are the forces impeding this from happening, and what can be done to overcome that? All voices that insist that students must attend college or (implicitly) be considered failures — along with their K-12 schools and educators — are to blame, but how do we as a society make them stop their destructive work?
    To show how tough it is: Mandating the UC A-G requirements as high school graduation requirements is part of that wrongheadedness. And of course it’s mainstream received wisdom to promote mandating the A-G requirements as high school graduation requirements as enlightened, egalitarian, raising the bar, social justice and all that.  But it’s in direct conflict with meeting the needs of students who want and need career readiness coming out of high school.

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  2. Bruce Abbott

    We need to let go of career and college ready. We publicly fund education to produce productive individuals. All efforts should be towards career ready. College is just another step towards a career. The question is when has the education been sufficient to allow the individual to start a career. I support the ideas expressed above that we need to provide much more career experience starting in high school. We need help the kids decide what career they want and then they will know what education they will need. Education needs more skills based, project based, classes. All tied to real world experiences.

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  3. Paul Muench

    First off, this isn’t the only one-sized-fits-all problem of our public education system.  And it’s not clear that we’ll ever be able to escape our long tradition of using that approach.  It may just be the reality of how our citizenry is willing and/or able to fund education.  Which leads me to my first question:  Is career readiness education cheaper or more expensive than college readiness education?  I ask this as our state is in a short-term cost focused mode and maybe career education is being neglected because it’s more expensive.  Secondly, are we ready as a state to accept regions that focus on college readiness education and other regions that focus on career readiness education?  This is a near certainty if we allow families choice in what students study.

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  4. Fred Jones

    Everyone needs a self-sustaining career at the end of the formal education.  College is not an end unto itself; it should be viewed as merely a means to that goal.  So I concur that careers should be one of the the top public education priorities of all public institutions (rather than a forgotten elective as it has become).
    CTE is being driven from our high schools (already near extinct in our middle/junior high schools) because it has been frozen-out of the three statewide drivers of our K-12 system: only programs/courses that are REQUIRED, FUNDED and MEASURED are valued.
    Hence the common theme of almost all of these contributors centers on broader, more meaningful accountability measurements (the “measure” driver).  Sacramento should also preserve the dwindling vocational ed dollars in the budget (and not go to a flexible “student weighted formula” that doesn’t protect CTE dollars for vocational ends).  Finally, we need to consider ways of inserting CTE into the classroom instructional day for all grades 7-12 students.
    Thanks TOP Ed for another fine forum with fantastic contributors!

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  5. Anthony Steele

    Please entertain the following conceptual restructuring model for the 22nd century.  Pre-k through grade 7 curriculum would be social skills, understanding human history, geography, computation and communication skills.  8-9 curriculum would be fundamental skill building in mastering language arts, mathematical concepts and visual and performing arts.  10-11 would be a more student centered curriculum encompassing all of the social and academic areas in which the child excells.  12 would be the completion of a college bound agenda, or immediate work force entry, with marketable skills. 

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  6. Reilleyfam

    It was almost shocking to me that could graduate from UC Berkeley (89) and be so utterly unqualified to be career ready. No computer skills, couldnt type, no office skills, didnt have a clue what it was like to have to work from 8-5 EVERY day and be formal and hardworking.

    And really, how does taking 5 classes a week where you show up sit in a chair in pajamas for 1-2 hours & listen to some prof lecture prepare you for having to get up at 6am, be at the office at 8 and be ready to do actual work with consequences all day long 5 days a week for 30 years? WORK prepares you for work. To be career ready kids need to be working in a formal employment setting and getting used to what it’s like to have to show up on time every day, work hard for a full shift and get along with supervisors and coworkers many/most of which you would never associate with and dont like. LIFE SKILLS are likely the most important skill. You can teach job DUTIES on the job.

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  7. Reilleyfam

    As far as curriculum; just look at the real world statistics of what jobs are available and needed. By far CTE type work is the majority. We have too many chiefs and not enough soldiers. We need to make CTE the norm. If  someone can and wants to persue college and beyond, fine, but for 7 out of 10 people; basic general education and CTE is the reality. There simply will never be enough jobs for everyone to be an attorney, an MBA, an MD. We need realy workers and we need to honor and pay them a living wage.

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  8. CarolineSF

    It’s predicted, though far too quietly, that college debt will cause the next financial meltdown:

    The promotion of the culture that  *all students must go to college or be condemned as failures* — along with the fact that students can no longer graduate from high school with functional career skills — will be directly responsible if so. Sorry to be such a Cassandra. But.

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  9. Sierra

    A great point. My wonderful liberal arts college was great at teaching me critical thinking and writing, but I still graduated woefully unprepared for the world of work. Several internships helped, but nothing beats learning on the job. I’d love to see universities work to add more relevance to their curriculum and more creative community partnerships where academic work meets real world problems. I also agree that ALL students should have more exposure to a wide range of careers starting in middle school – job shadowing, mock interviews, a reality check for what they actually need to learn to work in their area of interest (it might not be college!).

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  10. Robert

    So who decides who deserves to go to college and who goes the CTE route? This is a rhetorical question, but a slippery slope. Traditionally, low-income, students of color were pushed into VO-TECH while more affluent students were expected and prepared for college. The most stable path towards wealth in this country is through a college degree. Sure, some college degrees are more valuable than others and a plumber or electrician can make a great living, but who is to decide? The minute we don’t make college-readiness a goal for all is the minute we go back to tracking and cutting off options for students when they are 12 or younger.
    Lastly, as to some of the authors points, college and career readiness do not need to be mutually exclusive. A well designed curriculum and solid pedagogy will prepare students for options upon graduation which is all we should be really doing – giving all students as many choices as possible.

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  11. Fred Jones

    Robert:   Dr. Hoachlander did a massive nationwide study back in the early 1990s that totally debunked this “racial tracking” argument … it simply wasn’t true (the only two racial groups that had a slight disproportionate enrollment in Voc Ed were Whites and Native Americans, but only slightly higher than their general population).
    That’s a tired argument for justifying forcing ALL kids into Algebra I, Geometry and Alg II/Trig as a condition for graduating from high school.  Get REAL!  How many kids are going to have to vote with their feet (i.e., dropout) before we realize that they need relevant curriculum by the time they reach adolescence?  The primary grades should be focused on the core academics, but by the time middle school comes, we have to learn to integrate and offer real-world skills training coursework to not only keep their attention, but to inspire them for a rewarding, self-sufficient existence.  The UC A-G courses are anything but relevant to the world of work and industry.

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  12. CarolineSF

    Yes, this is certainly true:
    “Traditionally, low-income, students of color were pushed into VO-TECH while more affluent students were expected and prepared for college.”
    And the ridiculous response was to eliminate vocational-technical-career education from K-12 — what a non-”solution.” It’s like eliminating lunch counters, or drinking fountains, rather than eliminating segregation.
    This sounds really good in concept, but in reality, there truly isn’t time in the school day/year for a full curriculum of both:
    “college and career readiness do not need to be mutually exclusive.”
    How to handle all this, and how it’s decided who goes in which direction, are issues that we need to work on as a society. But not by eliminating career-vocational-technical education and promoting the “all students must go to college or be damned as failures and left without options” situation.

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  13. Sue Fox

    I prefer to say “post-secondary education and career ready.” Saying “college” defines learning after high school as the traditional 4 year route. Post-secondary education expands the idea to include the many high quality programs avaliable.

    We need to teach parents that CTE and post-secondary programs are demanding (CTE students do go on to college) and lead to successful, family supporting careers. Students who take this route have less debt and many have the opportunity to continue their education via employer reimbursement.

    Just yesterday I had a discussion with an engineer from Lockheed Martin. I asked him what non-engineering (non-4 year college) needs they had. His answer: manufacturing/machining, computer aided design, electronics & computer technology. Why is no one telling our kids?

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  14. Chris Stampolis


    Manufacturing/machining, computer-aided design, electronics & computer technology almost all require Community College level training – or some level of apprenticeships.

    Caroline writes about non-college goers being “condemned.”  I disagree.  If jobs are available for 18 year olds who are not interested in college, then those students should go after the jobs.  Even in the Building Trades/Construction Crafts, successful young people are the ones with initiative.

    Our culture really is about hustle.  If one does not want to attend classroom college, then one has to work hard and demonstrate to an employer that they’re the best even without a diploma.  There are great careers in the building trades, but only the best can make it into an apprenticeship, journey out, get dispatched and keep a job.  If one has a passion for that type of career, then absolutely go straight to work and get busy.

    Same thing with artists and musicians and broadcasters and writers, etc.  Those with a passion can make a career.  Those with less focus often will struggle.

    For young people who aren’t quite sure what they want to do with life, college can be a valuable option.  Unfocused young people who want to work (not study) will find it challenging to locate employers who want to take a risk on someone who isn’t sure of direction.

    - Chris Stampolis
    Trustee, West Valley- Mission Community College District
    State Board Member, California Community College Trustees (CCCT)
    408-771-6858  /  408-390-4748  /

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