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As early as the 1970s, educators have been promoting career education in high school as an alternative to the traditional college prep track. According to Indiana State Representative Robert Behning, “For too long, we’ve been focused on four-year colleges, and that’s not necessarily the right course for every student.”

What Is Career Education?

The EdGlossary defines “career education” (also referred to as “career and technical education”) as “programs that specialize in the skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technologies, and career preparation.”

Students who pursue career education are frequently interested in automotive repair and technology, plumbing or electrical contracting, agriculture, culinary arts, healthcare and personal training, to name a few. Some of these high school students, and even some middle school students, have not only the interest and determination but also the skills to succeed in jobs and careers that do not require a four-year college degree.

Why Are Educators Promoting a Career Education Path for Some Students?

Anthony Carnevale, head of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, believes that typical college prep curriculum offered to most high school students is becoming more abstract and less practical, and offers less applied learning opportunities for students who are not college-bound. These purely academic programs are not preparing students to enter the workforce.

Carnevale also reports, “Every year more than 400,000 young people in the top half of their high school class go to college, and at least eight years later, they have not gained either a two- or four-year degree or a certificate.” College prep is not working for everyone.

How Has Career Education Changed the Schools?

In a position paper prepared by the 1974 Career Education Task Force in California, the authors took a firm stand on the need to change the way schools present opportunities:

Educators need to help each student move toward the next step of a career plan by means of realistic experiences and activities that give the student the opportunity to become aware of his “self” as it relates to the choice of an education, an occupation, or leisure activity.

In response to this call to action, as well as that of other educators, schools have altered the manner in which they perceive achievement and present opportunities.

Indiana legislature is preparing laws requiring “the state board of education to design various ‘graduation pathways.'” These mandates will not remove accountability requirements, but they will allow students options for demonstrating mastery of tasks and scope of understanding.

In Missouri, students who meet specific requirements, including completion of three career courses and 50 hours of work-based learning, will receive a career education certificate in addition to a diploma. Part of this program includes making businesses aware of the meaning and value of this certificate.

Some states now require schools to include options of certificates, apprenticeships and the military in addition to the standard college and profession choices when providing career counseling to students.

Other Benefits of Career Education

Even for students who plan to eventually pursue a college degree, the career education pathway, with on-the-job training and apprenticeships, teaches students the “soft skills” many employers desire:

    • Better understanding of how to be a team player.
    • Effective communication.
    • The ability to accept feedback graciously.
    • Creative thinking.
    • Problem-solving skills.

In addition, high school students who pursue a career education are prepared to seek full-time employment immediately upon graduation. Although these students may be interested in careers that demand a college degree, they have the skills necessary to work in a position that provides a living wage while researching colleges, universities and other educational institutes.

The Role of High School Administrators

As a principal, dean or school administrator, you have an important role to play in the future of your students. Your school may be large enough to preclude you from knowing each student’s name, let alone aspirations and talents, but the messages you send to the student body are powerful and meaningful. Your voice may make the difference between students doing what they believe is expected of them and doing what is best for them.

As a current spokesperson for education, you can mirror the words of Wilson Riles, California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1974, who said, “The infusion of career education into the total educational process enhances all subject matter, all disciplines, and it affords educators the opportunity to translate the educational process into instruction that is more useful, usable, and relevant for all students.”

Learn more about the Mississippi College online Master of Education in Educational Leadership program.


The Glossary of Education Reform: Career and Technical Education

Education Week: Growing Number of States Embrace Career Education

The Balance: The Most Important Soft Skills Employers Seek

ERIC Institute of Education Services: Career Education: A Position Paper on Career Development and Preparation in California

nprEd: Why High School Students Need More Than College Prep

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