College & Career Readiness - ParentPowered®

College and Career Readiness:

Engaging Families for Postsecondary Success

The world after high school is becoming increasingly complex for today’s students. 

The modern workplace itself continues to evolve at ever faster rates as a result of shifting geopolitical, economic, technological, and environment trends. In their 2023 report, The Future Of Jobs, the World Economic Forum asserted that 44% of workers’ skills may be disrupted over the next five years, with cognitive skills like analytical thinking, creativity, and the ability to upskill growing in importance to many employers. 

There is also greater examination of the role that higher education plays in students’ long-term career development. While many of today’s teens agree that postsecondary education is still important, they are also more interested in alternative pathways beyond a traditional four-year college than past generations (ECMC Group).

No matter the journey a student takes after graduation, college and career readiness plays an essential role in their ability to successfully navigate life as an adult. Beyond academic achievement, this preparedness encompasses a broad range of skills, knowledge, and attributes that enable teens to seamlessly transition into “the real world.” 

College and career readiness is not merely a buzzword; it’s a comprehensive approach that equips students with the necessary tools to thrive in a rapidly changing world. It also requires a collaborative effort between educational institutions and families to cultivate these capabilities. 

In fact, family engagement is a critical component to any strategy that bolsters career and college preparedness in students today to create a more vibrant future for them tomorrow.

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Families are essential for teens’ postsecondary success

Families can contribute to many familiar and new strategies for preparing students for life after high school graduation. By intentionally leveraging parents and caregivers as collaborative allies in college and career readiness planning, educators ensure that students are equipped with the right tools to navigate an ever-evolving world.

Why families matter in high school and beyond

Many educators already recognize the huge benefits that family engagement imparts, affecting everything from student achievement to attendance rates to school climate. During listening sessions with families and students, ParentPowered often hears from many caregivers supporting high schoolers that they feel less connected to school and less confident in their ability to support student learning.

In some ways, this disconnect makes sense. Teens are developing increased independence and self-reliance. School itself is much more complex and involves many more educators than earlier years. 

But adolescents still need parental support even with these realities. In fact, research indicates that there is a “relationship gap” in secondary school contexts, with far fewer students reporting that any adults know them within the school community. This insight offers an opportunity for families to step in and support their teens with developmentally appropriate, positive relationships and support. 

Think of it like learning how to swim. Parents, caregivers, teachers, and other key adults are the sides of a huge swimming pool. Younger students may stay close to their adults, holding on tightly as they build their comfort with the water and their muscles for swimming. Adolescents, however, are diving into the deep end. But they still come back to these adults as a safe space to rest before pushing off the wall once more. 

This analogy also applies to college and career readiness. Here are just a few of the many ways that families support their students’ preparedness for life after high school.

Attendance and engagement

A common milestone on a teen’s path towards their future is completing high school. Graduating from high school necessitates that students engage in their own learning, and oftentime, be physically present at school. Families are wonderful allies for educators working to improve student attendance or engaging disengaged students who are at risk of absenteeism.

Critical conversations

Families are in an excellent position to facilitate conversations with their students about the future — and the value of such conversations cannot be understated. A 2017 study found that future wage earnings at age 26 increase by 0.8% for each meaningful career conversation students experience in middle and high school (OECD, 2017). 

Conversely, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that 74% of high school students who dropped out of school actually had passing grades. When asked why they quit, students reported that they did not feel that what they were learning was relevant to them. They had career ideas in mind — but no one had discussed with them how what they learned in school connected with and supported their future goals. 

Caregivers can step in and support their teens by holding space for these discussions and helping them connect the dots between their future aspirations and current learnings.

Educational and career exploration 

Families can also contribute to teens’ research and exploration into the many postsecondary pathways available. This may look like those critical conversations about goals and aspirations, reflecting on careers that their teen sees around them, or checking in with their student about their understanding of the requirements for specific career paths of interest. Career exploration can even begin as early as elementary school (though it looks quite different).

Rather than take a direct, hands-on approach (as typically done in elementary school), high school families create greater impact when they shift from being captains to co-pilots. With developmentally appropriate parental support, adolescents are more engaged in activities like career exploration; however, direct interference by a caregiver may have the opposite effect (Dietrich & Kracke, 2009).

Challenges with family partnerships in postsecondary readiness

Challenges with family partnerships in postsecondary readiness

Despite the benefits that families offer to students’ career and college readiness, there is great disparity in caregivers’ readiness to support this preparedness and relevant factors like graduation requirements.

For educational pathways after high school, students and caregivers face a number of new and complex systems. These include but are not limited to:

    • Financial aid applications (like FAFSA) for applying to college
    • Scholarship opportunities for college
    • Academic and nonacademic prerequisites for applying to vocational schools
    • The application and admissions processes themselves for various postsecondary learning opportunities

Understanding how to navigate such systems is essential for a teen to pursue postsecondary schooling and the job market. In many cases, this knowledge is also necessary to make postsecondary schooling financially accessible in the first place. 

With career exploration, it can also be difficult for families to know about or access opportunities that engage teens in real-world experiences relevant to the work they wish to pursue. Caregivers may also not know how to start supporting students with mapping their strengths and interests to potential jobs, or what skills and education are required for specific careers. Last, teens need to learn fundamental practices such as how to write a resume, prepare for a job interview, budgeting for future living expenses based on income, etc.

This is why it is crucial for all family engagement efforts to help caregivers build the cultural capital and key knowledge to support critical skills and milestones that impact a student’s postsecondary goals.

How schools promote college and career readiness

How schools promote college and career readiness

Schools have a variety of methods available to support their students with preparing for the world after high school graduation. In each of these example strategies, families are key allies available to support educators.

School counseling

Some educators may immediately think of school counseling services when they think of how they support postsecondary readiness. Often on the frontlines of college and career planning for high school students, school counselors can be an invaluable resource to help teens to define their future vision, then carve a pathway towards them. Collaborations between school counselors and other educators, such as school psychologists (where available), further support students to pursue various postsecondary opportunities, especially for urban students (Hines et al., 2019).

Despite their positive impact, school counselors also face a number of hurdles in serving each student equally well. The average high school places more than 400 students on a single counselor’s caseload — and that’s if a counselor is available consistently in the first place. 

When family engagement teams expand to include college and career counselors, it sets educators up for more collaborative career counseling strategies through partnerships with caregivers and families in service of students’ college and career readiness.

Individualized learning plans

Educators across the U.S. are increasingly recognizing the value and benefits of giving students ownership over their own postsecondary planning (Conley & French, 2013). Individualized learning plans (ILPs) create a scaffold onto which students can begin to map their pathway towards the future they seek. Here’s an example of what such an ILP may look like for a high school student. 

At the core of ILPs are personalized learning strategies that:

    • Support students with a smooth transition from high school into either higher education or the workforce, 
    • Boost student engagement, and
    • Invite families to engage with learning.

Here again, caregivers play an important role to help teens realize their individualized learning plans and create pathways toward their desired futures.

College or career prep programs

Schools may also explore partnering with community-based organizations that offer specific career and college preparation learning programs or pathways. 

Academically, opportunities such as Advanced Placement classes, career and technical education units, and dual enrollment with local colleges may sound most familiar to educators. Preparation programs may also be more specialized in particular career pathways or be sponsored by employers eager to invest in developing skills in the future workforce that their organizations desire. Some opportunities may align with specific career or college readiness standards adopted by schools.

The more caregivers know about how such programs impact students’ desired futures, the greater a resource they become in supporting their teens’ engagement. Educators are well positioned to develop welcoming, supportive programs that invite families as active contributors to their students’ future planning. Further, schools can help orient families around these opportunities and what all these terms like “career and technical education” really mean.

Real-world experiences

Some skills that support career readiness especially are best developed through hands-on experience. Educators can partner with community organizations and members to offer teens opportunities like mentorships and internships that give them a peek at specific jobs, work environments, and more. Parents and caregivers in the school community are often great resources for bringing these real-world experiences to high school students, too.

Scaffolding family engagement for college & career readiness

Scaffolding family engagement for college & career readiness

With our programming now expanded into high school, ParentPowered scaffolds family engagement to promote college and career readiness. Our framework specifically focuses on the following elements of postsecondary preparation:

    • Self-reflection
    • Career exploration
    • Aspirations & goal-setting
    • Education/training research
    • Planning and preparing for postsecondary goals
    • Implementing steps towards them (deadlines, applications, etc)

Our text messages give caregivers ways to talk with their teens about their strengths and aspirations, engage in career exploration, and check in about steps teens are taking towards their goals and about deadlines and applications. The curriculum also orients families around common terms related to career and college, including credits, scholarships, resumes, internships, etc.

By mapping parents and caregivers onto the ILP process — and setting them up with related information, questions, and activities — our family engagement program ensures every family continues to contribute meaningfully to their students’ long-term success.

Dual Capacity-Building Framework
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What caregivers need to know about career and college readiness

What caregivers need to know about career and college readiness

Educators can use these answers to commonly asked questions to educate caregivers on the value of career and college readiness, and the essential role that families play in cultivating teen’s preparedness.

What is college & career readiness?

Though college or career readiness definitions share similarities, there is no universal definition of what it means for a student to be prepared for the future world after high school. For example, the Michigan College, Career, and Life Readiness Framework emphasizes six competencies research links to student success in college or career pursuits, offering guidance for measuring initiatives focused on building this readiness and identifying purposeful opportunities for technology to support them.

It is worth noting that, in high school, educators may tend to give more attention, support, and emphasis towards pathways into college and postsecondary education. This focus does not always serve students across all communities, such as more rural towns and schools (Budge et al., 2019), nor may it necessarily reflect what each student sees as their pathway forward after graduation. 

Here again, this is where families can play an important role in supporting their teens to explore what their futures could look like. By understanding what it takes for a student to be prepared for life after high school — whether it’s pursuing a career or applying for postsecondary education — caregivers can better partner with their students as they follow their desired path. 

Educators have a great opportunity to cultivate families’ knowledge and engagement in career and college planning practices to help all students thrive after graduation.

 

What skills and knowledge are necessary for college and career readiness?

Though educators emphasize postsecondary preparedness during high school, the skills and practices behind it begin to develop much earlier. The table below outlines a few examples of the many capabilities, from digital literacy skills to math to reading, that help students navigate opportunities in both career and higher education.

 

Cultivating Career & College Preparedness: Example Skills

Academics
  • Strong literacy and writing skills
  • Mathematics and logical reasoning
  • Speciality skills developed through tailored education pathways (e.g. Career & Technical Education pathways, dual enrollment at local educational institutions)
Mental Health & Wellbeing
  • Executive functional skills (e.g. critical thinking)
  • Self-advocacy and reflection
  • Healthy decision-making
  • Collaboration with peers
  • Clear communication
  • Time-management skill
  • Strategies for supporting students’ mental health.
Practical Life Skills
  • Financial literacy (e.g. budgeting, managing finance accounts)
  • Personal care routines and hygiene
  • Home and space management skills
  • Technology skills

What are the long-term benefits of being college and career ready?

The long-term benefits of being college and career ready are numerous. By cultivating the skills necessary for success in the postsecondary world, students may experience:

    • Greater wage earning potential: The lifetime earnings of a full-time, full-year worker with a high school diploma are about $1.6 million; on the other hand, workers with an associate’s degree or higher will earn over $2 million (Cheah et al., 2021). But a higher education degree isn’t the only means to financial wellbeing. Increasingly well-paying jobs can be found in skilled-services industries such as health services and financial services, which may have different educational requirements (Carnevale et al., 2017).
    • Higher-quality jobs: Candidates with the skills necessary to navigate increasingly complex work environments and a more competitive global economy stand a greater chance of securing new positions.
    • Improved wellbeing: With “upward economic mobility, financial security, and opportunities for career progress and growth” comes greater health and wellbeing, both emotionally and physically (Kaiser Permanente).

However, students also face barriers that hinder access to these benefits. In particular, the current generation of young adults face “rising costs for postsecondary education, limited access to high-quality work-based learning opportunities, and the absence or limited availability of comprehensive counseling and career navigation services” (Carnevale et al., 2022).

Though these barriers seem daunting, they also present an amazing opportunity for educators to create a more comprehensive support team around each teen — one that engages educators, families, and community members alike — to ensure every student can become college and career ready. 

Preparing for college studies and future careers equips students with the necessary skills and knowledge to thrive in an increasingly competitive world. But it also necessitates addressing the inequities in postsecondary opportunities and preparation that still exist today. Family-school partnerships are a first step towards dismantling these barriers.

Tips for partnering with families in college and career readiness

Tips for partnering with families in college and career readiness

Secondary school educators can leverage these four strategies today to prepare their teens for a brighter tomorrow.

Help families nurture strong relationships with their teens

Healthy parent-child relationships during adolescence bring a myriad of benefits to students, including improved mental and physical health in teens (Ford et al, 2023). A big part of a positive relationship is effective communication. 

Whether it’s reflecting with a student about what excites the most or listening actively to a teen sharing their concerns about the future, great communication is a key tool in every families’ toolkit. Take a look at these resources for cultivating strong parent-child communication:

Download our communication resource for teens and parents to build active listening skills!

Use developmentally appropriate ways to support postsecondary goals

As described earlier, less direct approaches to supporting a teen’s growth and development are much more impactful and age-appropriate than hands-on methods. Strategies such as academic socialization (using one’s educational beliefs and expectations to help navigate or influence their child’s academic success) give teens enough space to flex their independence while also creating helpful guidelines for students to follow to reach their postsecondary goals. 

Take a look at this example ParentPowered message offering families practical ways to help their teen identify and plan for key requirements if they are interested in attending college or pursuing other postsecondary education options:

FACT: High schoolers must take certain classes next year. There may be added requirements if they plan to attend college. Knowing requirements is key.

TIP: Ask your teen to tell you about their requirements for next year. What classes do they need to take? Are they on track with the credits they need to graduate? Attend college?

GROWTH: Now check in to make sure your teen knows who to go to if they have questions about requirements. If they’re unsure, call the office to ask.

Dual Capacity-Building Framework
Dual Capacity-Building Framework

Encourage participating in clubs, activities, extracurriculars, or community-based opportunities to grow

Classrooms aren’t the only place where teens build life skills that support their future plans! Participating in clubs, school or community-based activities, sports, and other extracurriculars helps adolescents put into practice those “soft” skills that are necessary for the workplace and higher education. These opportunities also cultivate a sense of belonging and connection, which in turn supports students’ engagement in learning. 

Here’s one way that ParentPowered activates caregivers to help their teen to find a niche when it comes to school activities:

FACT: When teens feel a sense of belonging in high school it boosts their motivation and effort. Joining school clubs and activities helps build this connection.

TIP: Ask your teen if there are clubs or activities, they might be interested in. If they aren’t sure try, “Is there a friend or teacher you could ask?”

GROWTH: Attending school events like games and concerts can help your teen discover activities they might want to join. Being in the audience can also boost belonging.

Connect the dots between future aspirations and current learnings

One of the easiest and most effective ways that parents can nurture postsecondary readiness is to cultivate their teens’ self-awareness and reflection. These lifelong practices are invaluable to help students get clear about what they want in their future and where they are on the journey towards those goals. 

ParentPowered gives families helpful prompts like the one on the right to kickstart these conversations with high school students:

FACT: When you ask your teen about things they like doing, you build their self-awareness. This helps your teen work towards a future that’s meaningful to them.

TIP: Notice things your teen likes doing. What captures their attention? Ask about it. For example, “What do you enjoy most about drawing? Basketball? Acting?”

GROWTH: Mention similarities in things your child likes doing. For example, “I notice you seem to like activities that involve working with your hands.”

Dual Capacity-Building Framework

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