by Kei-Sygh Thomas, STC Communications Intern

The value of the American high school diploma is on the decline. While strong academic preparation is the critical foundation for postsecondary success, many factors beyond academics determine a student’s ability to succeed in college and beyond.

Educators and employers alike highlight the importance of strong written and oral communication skills, analytic and computing skills, teamwork and project management, resourcefulness, financial literacy, socioemotional skills, metacognition, and the list goes on. With so many different definitions, how can educators effectively assess their students’ readiness for college, career, and life? And how can students assess themselves?

As we’ve grappled with these questions, Schools That Can was able to speak with several member schools and partners to gain a clearer understanding of what readiness looks like and how it fits within the education to employment pathway.


Exploration and Reflection

A critical part of college preparation is exploring interests and reflecting on your experiences. Reetu Gupta, the founder of CirkledIn, an online database that enables K-12 students to curate their academic experiences and extracurricular achievements for the college and scholarship application process, believes exploration and strategic planning are imperative.

“Proactive planning begets college success,” Gupta says; career planning should begin before a student even steps foot onto campus. Extracurriculars, clubs, project-based learning, and other activities, help students understand their interests and skills with minimal pressure.

By reflecting on one’s experiences before college, students will be aware of how their skills and interests align with potential careers. “It is important that students know what it is that they want to do,” Gupta said. “Many students enter college without knowing… and by the time they figure it out, they have wasted three years and are in debt.”

STC supports exploration and reflection through programs that ignite interests at the elementary school level by giving kids opportunities to learn about different career fields and test the waters through fun and educational activities. At the middle grades, students can explore these interests through more extensive projects that give them a taste of potential jobs. In high school, students should be pursuing pathways through internships or work-based learning experiences that help hone their interests and skills before graduating.


College Persistence and Career Planning

Early career exposure can help students better navigate college and save on time, money, and confusion in the long term.

Dennis Di Lorenzo, Dean of NYU School of Professional Studies, knows skyrocketing tuition and increased selectivity in traditional four-year higher programs means that thousands of students don’t have access to this possible pathway. This is unfortunate considering that “higher education is no longer a luxury for the privileged few, but a necessity for individual prosperity,” says Di Lorenzo.  “Increasingly, occupations are requiring education beyond a high school degree and socioeconomic mobility is dependent on the educational attainment of students.”

“Even for the fortunate few that surpass these initial barriers, persistence rates point to an even bleaker picture – almost 42 percent of students who start college [do not] finish,” Di Lorenzo said. We have found ways to get our low-income and minority students into college; however, we are not succeeding at graduating these students at reasonable rates. How can we reach beyond college admission and improve college persistence?

Lucie Coates, a college persistence manager at Newark Collegiate Academy, believes the key to career readiness and persistence is for high school students to have clear goals for their future and to understand how continuing education fits within their plans.  

“The two biggest factors that affect college entrance and completion are purpose and resourcefulness,” she said. “When students know what they want to do, the steps they need to take them there, and exactly where a degree fits within that path, [this] affects whether or not they will stay the course.”

Oftentimes, students’ uncertainty about which careers they wish to pursue makes it difficult to define and hone necessary skills. Students take classes that are misaligned with prospective careers because they have not spent adequate time exploring and reflecting; it’s an interminable cycle. By the time students realize what they want, it may be too late to switch their course of study and pursue a different major.


Finding the Best Fit

However, goal-setting is just the first step. “Once students know why they are there, it is important for them to recognize when they need help, be willing to ask for it, and most importantly, know where to go to make sure the hurdles that will inevitably pop up do not keep them from graduating,” Coates finished.

This resourcefulness is important all through college but begins even during the college selection process. Finding a “best fit” postsecondary program is critical for student success. Lindsay Paul manages the Horatio Alger Association scholarship programs, which both provide scholarships to deserving students from underserved communities and offer leadership training programs to their scholars. “[Students] need to look at [college’s] graduation rates and support services for low-income, first-generation college students,” she states.


Preparing Our Students for Life

Paul highlighted another key component of college persistence: financial wherewithal. “One of the things we see a lot among our scholarship recipients is that they lack a full understanding of financial literacy and loans. Students do not understand what they’re going to owe and are so set on a dream regardless of financial barrier instead of looking for a well-rounded package,” she said.

Students who lack the fundamental knowledge of their financial aid package and how much they will owe, put themselves in a financial bind. In fact, by some estimates up to 70% of students who drop out of college cite financial concerns as a primary issue. During our e2e Symposium in November 2015, STC facilitated a panel of students, educators, industry leaders, and innovators. The issue of financial literacy and understanding tuition was a key issue raised by the two students on the panel.

Another issue raised by the panel was that of “social capital.” For better or for worse, the power of one’s social networks is an important indicator of future success. Students can begin to build capital through work experiences, mentorships, and peer support programs.


Ensuring That All Students Are Ready

So, with a complex set of criteria for “readiness” and a clear set of obstacles in pursuing the education to employment pathway, how can we feasibly ensure that all students are prepared for postsecondary success? This may seem like a daunting task, but schools across the country and STC’s network are tackling it gracefully. Here are some of their best practices:

  • St Martin de Porres High School (Cleveland) and Cristo Rey St. Martin (Chicago), both schools within the Cristo Rey Network, have students spend one day every week in an internship. Through these internships, students have the chance to experience the professional world and think about what careers they may want (or not want) to pursue
  • MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland pairs every sophomore up with a professional from one of their corporate partners, General Electric. Through these mentorships, students have the chance to learn about the working world and engage in projects that real GE employees complete.
  • Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles build partnerships with local industries to connect learning and work. Employees from these partner organizations spend time on campus, collaborate with teachers on lesson plan design, and mentor students through project-based learning.
  • EPIC Schools in NYC facilitate interdisciplinary project-based learning that enables students to explore their interests through complex research and real-world projects. At least quarterly, students present their learning and development to a panel of adults, which builds their metacognition, communication, and confidence.
  • Academy for Careers in TV & Film provides students with rigorous academics through AP courses, and real-world learning experiences through film production classes and internships.
  • Math, Engineering and Science Academy (MESA) Charter High School empowers their 11th graders to become financially literate through a student-led financial literacy club, run through STC’s partner NextGenVest.


The future of college and career readiness is bright. Dean Di Lorenzo said, “As leaders in education, it is our moral responsibility to the generations of tomorrow to take a serious look at these issues and begin creating alternative pathways… [These] include redefining college readiness standards, improving career preparation, and creating programs that improve access to higher education.”


Redefining college and workforce readiness will be explored during breakout sessions at STC’s 11th Annual Forum co-hosted by NYU School of Professional Studies. We will address the role of K-12 and higher education in preparing students for the future in hopes that everyone will walk with a better understanding of how they fit into this equation. Help our kids say yes to opportunity and say yes to our invite for you to be a part of this transformative event.


Kei-Sygh Thomas is an alum of Newark Collegiate Academy, a KIPP high school in Newark and Partner in STC’s network. She is currently a junior at Drew University and enjoys writing about issues related to college access and career preparation.