From Margins to Mainstream

Bringing Career-Connected Learning to Scale

As recently as 30 years ago, vocational education in the United States was generally regarded as “second class.” It was a fine thing, as the saying went, for other people’s children. In a world in which high school students were tracked—with one track typically leading to college and another to the skilled trades—vocational education was designed for the students not deemed to be “college material.” Too often, students from low-income families and students of color were funneled onto this track and sent on pathways to low-paying, low-mobility careers.

Today’s career and technical education (CTE) bears little resemblance to this model. In our home state of Massachusetts, many of the 28 regional vocational and technical high schools have long waiting lists for admission. These schools collectively have reading and math scores and graduation rates similar to those of the comprehensive high schools in the state.1 They are significant contributors to the consistently high performance of Massachusetts students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The equity problem is now reversed, with many civil rights leaders voicing concerns about unequal access for students of color and students from low-income families.2 With far more applicants than seats, there is growing scrutiny around school admissions policies and pressure to move to a lottery-based admissions system.

In addition to the 28 regional vocational-technical schools, Massachusetts has eight urban district-run vocational-technical schools, one of which has attracted national acclaim: Worcester Technical High School, which serves the second-largest city in the state. Like the regional schools, it is structured into alternating weeks of academic instruction and hands-on lab or shop work. It offers 23 technical programs ranging from biotech and environmental tech, IT support, and programming and web development to the trades (e.g., electrical, carpentry, HVAC, plumbing), advanced manufacturing, and robotics and automation. The school features small class sizes, a student-run bank and restaurant, and a veterinary clinic run in collaboration with the veterinary program at Tufts University. In their senior year, nearly all students have a substantial paid co-op experience in their field of study. Students also have access to advanced placement and dual enrollment courses. With a total enrollment of more than 1,400 students, Worcester Tech has a 97 percent attendance rate, a 98 percent graduation rate, and a 66 percent college-going rate—higher than the school district and state as a whole.3

Programs at full-time CTE schools like Worcester Tech are comparable in intensity and duration to high-quality CTE programs internationally. However, while roughly 9 percent of the state’s high school students are CTE concentrators (i.e., students who take three or more courses* in a particular career field), full-time CTE schools enroll just half of the state’s CTE concentrators.4 The other half is in comprehensive high schools, where CTE programming is less intense. This raises an important question for Massachusetts policymakers, one that is likely a concern for other states as well: How can we expand access to high-quality, high-intensity CTE programs like those at full-time schools to more CTE concentrators?

A second, more challenging question emerged about a decade ago when Massachusetts and many other states adopted the goal of preparing all students for both college and career. Less than 20 percent of students5 nationally are CTE concentrators, so how can we ensure that all students have access to—and benefit from—career preparation opportunities? In response, a growing career pathways movement has developed with CTE at the center but with a broader focus and reach: to enable all students to graduate high school “college and career ready.”

What Do We Mean by “College and Career Ready”?

Today, at least 37 state education plans include a unified definition of “college and career ready.”6 “College ready” is a term that most people understand, although they might have differing opinions about what metrics to use in defining college readiness. In our view, an important indicator of college readiness is successful completion of a rigorous, well-structured early college program—including attainment of a postsecondary credential. The growth in dual enrollment, which we document below, suggests we are not alone in this judgment.

What we mean by “career ready,” on the other hand, is not as clear. In part, this is because we do not want or expect most students to go directly to work after high school. The vast majority of high-paying, high-mobility jobs today require some kind of credential beyond a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year degree. Other valuable credentials include industry certifications, apprenticeship certifications, one-year postsecondary occupational certificates, and associate degrees, preferably in a career field. To make the best decision about which pathway to pursue, students need some knowledge of the careers available to them and the foundational skills to pursue those careers. Therefore, we define a career-ready graduate as a student who has (1) had enough systematic exposure to the world of work and careers, including through career-connected coursework, work-based learning, or paid internships or summer jobs, to make an informed choice about the best education or training pathway to take post–high school; and (2) developed the foundational skills (also known as employability skills or soft skills)—like communication, teamwork, and problem-solving—needed to succeed in the world of work.

If we are to deliver on the promise that all students will leave high school ready for careers as well as college, we can’t (and shouldn’t) rely on our CTE systems alone. While we must improve the quality and intensity of CTE programs for students who choose to concentrate, we must also find a way to spread the benefits of CTE to the other 80 percent of high schoolers. We must build stronger, more coherent, and transparent pathways from high school to postsecondary education and training and then to careers for every student. This insight led to the development of the career pathways movement. Career pathways may incorporate CTE, but they are aimed at the broader student population. They integrate career-focused and academic learning and increasingly span grades 11–14, leveraging early college/dual enrollment models to help students get started on both college and a career while in high school.

In this article, we use “career-connected learning” as an umbrella term that includes both CTE and career pathways.7 We argue that, taken together, CTE and the broader career pathways movement have the potential to become a new majority-serving system that will improve academic and economic outcomes for all students. To make that case, we will first document the growth and evidence base for both CTE and career pathways.

Growth and Modernization of CTE

Over the past century—from the 1917 enactment of the Smith-Hughes Act to the 2006 passage and 2018 reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act—CTE has evolved into a rigorous academic option for students preparing for a variety of post–high school futures. At the state level, policymakers have embraced CTE, with several leaders embedding CTE into their broader education plans. Today, 31 states have a college and career readiness indicator that includes CTE coursework or work-based learning in their assessments of school quality and student success.8 In 2022 alone, 37 states—led by both Democrats and Republicans—enacted 123 policies focused on CTE.9

Today’s CTE is characterized by several trends: (1) increased industry involvement, paired with a focus on career exposure and work-based learning opportunities (e.g., internships and apprenticeships); (2) focus on the integration in high school of postsecondary education and credentials; and (3) inclusion of employability skills alongside technical skills instruction. In high schools across the country, CTE is high-tech and wide-ranging, spanning 16 career clusters with course sequences in in-demand fields from business to health sciences. Among schools that offer CTE, 77 percent offer work-based learning opportunities and 73 percent offer courses that earn both high school and college credit.10

In the 2021–22 school year, approximately 8.2 million high school students took a CTE course, but drastically fewer chose to concentrate by completing three or more courses in a single field or program of study. Overall, white male students are more likely to participate in CTE than female students and students of color, and there tends to be an occupational divide wherein female students are more likely to study health sciences and fewer students of color are enrolled in STEM fields. In 2021–22, the most popular career clusters were business, arts and communications, agriculture and natural resources, and health sciences.11

A 2018 survey of public school districts found that CTE is offered in 98 percent of districts, but delivery mechanisms are diverse. The majority of school districts (83 percent) offer CTE courses at comprehensive high schools, while less than half (43 percent) offer courses at CTE centers that students attend part-time and even fewer (12 percent) offer courses at full-time CTE-focused high schools. Thirty-five percent offer courses at two- and four-year colleges.12

Overview of the Evidence for CTE

As national interest in CTE has grown, so has rigorous research on the topic. Alongside longstanding observational studies, new research demonstrates that high-quality, high-intensity CTE can lead to improved academic and economic outcomes for students, particularly higher rates of student engagement, on-time high school graduation, and workforce earnings.13 Studies suggest that impacts can vary by the form of content delivery, course timing, and field of study, among other factors.

Historically, the evidence base for CTE has been relatively slim because students tend to self-select into courses. However, a causal study of admissions data from CTE high schools in Massachusetts found that participation increased the likelihood of on-time graduation by 7 to 10 percentage points for students from higher-income families, with even larger impacts for students from lower-income families.14 Another study of CTE-dedicated high schools in New York City found that CTE coursework led to increased school attendance and a higher likelihood that students were on track to receive a diploma. At smaller schools with a single or themed career focus, there were even more meaningful increases in student graduation and college enrollment rates.15 Similarly, a study of national data found that high school CTE course-taking is associated with lower dropout rates and increased rates of on-time graduation, especially when courses are taken in later grades.16

The impact of CTE may vary for different student populations. A causal study of students at CTE-focused high schools in Connecticut found that male CTE students were 10 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school, had higher attendance and 10th-grade test scores, and had 32 percent higher quarterly earnings than non-CTE students at age 23, but the same benefits did not accrue for females.17 Another study using student data from Massachusetts uncovered differences in academic outcomes by gender as well as large variations across fields such as IT, healthcare, and construction.18 Meanwhile, evidence on the impact of CTE on college enrollment is mixed, but a study using transcripts from the High School Longitudinal Study of 2009 found that participation in CTE programs was not related to a student’s probability of enrolling in college.19 That is, CTE can be a different path to college—not one that precludes or discourages attendance.

Importantly, the structure and amount of CTE coursework that a student engages with seem to have an impact on outcomes: more advanced, sequenced coursework is associated with better results. A comprehensive longitudinal study that followed three cohorts of more than 100,000 students in Arkansas from eighth grade to college and into the workforce found that students who chose to concentrate in CTE (by earning three or more credits in a program of study) were 21 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than their peers who did not concentrate. The study found that additional CTE coursework translated to a higher probability of graduation, community college enrollment, and employment and earnings.20 These findings are supported by a study finding that taking advanced CTE courses is associated with a 2 percent wage premium for each additional year of study, while introductory CTE courses created little wage gains.21 Some of the strongest evidence supporting CTE has been conducted at career academies,22 which offer highly structured, sequenced, themed CTE learning, as we discuss below.

The Development of the Career 
Pathways Movement

While the term career pathways has been floating around for decades, it took on a more specific meaning with the launch of the Pathways to Prosperity Network23 in 2012. The Pathways Network, cofounded by Jobs for the Future and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was established in response to a 2011 report24 that one of us (Schwartz) coauthored, which argued that we should create multiple pathways alongside the four-year college path for students after high school. The Pathways Network was deliberately designed to build generally on the CTE system, and specifically on two well-established prior initiatives: (1) career academies, best represented by the work of NAF, formerly the National Academy Foundation; and (2) early college high schools, a structured form of dual enrollment that helps students get started on college while in high school.

Career academies are typically small schools within a larger comprehensive high school, using career-focused coursework and aligned work-based learning opportunities to engage students and keep them motivated to stay in school. NAF, for example, supports academies in five industry sectors: engineering, finance, health sciences, hospitality and tourism, and information technology. NAF began with one Academy of Finance in 1982. Today, there are over 600 NAF academies in 35 states and territories serving 112,000 students. Beyond NAF, the National Career Academy Coalition estimates that there are career academies operating in 7,000 high schools serving over one million students.25 They are designed to be college as well as career focused, but career academies typically have little or no direct connection to postsecondary institutions.

By contrast, early college high schools (ECHSs), an innovation largely sponsored initially by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the early 2000s, are explicitly connected to postsecondary institutions—mostly community colleges—but only occasionally designed with a career focus. Two states in particular, North Carolina and Texas, led the development of the early college movement.26 With initial Gates funding, both states created new statewide organizations—North Carolina New Schools and Educate Texas—to develop and spread the ECHS model. These schools were deliberately designed to create a low-cost, accelerated pathway to a first postsecondary credential for students from groups historically underrepresented in higher education. In a relatively few years, North Carolina launched 130 ECHSs, Texas, 170. In Texas’s Pharr-San Juan-Alamo district, all high schools are ECHSs and students can graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree, 60 hours of college credit, or an occupational certificate from South Texas College.27

The best-known national network of ECHSs, and one of the best examples of career-focused early college, is P-TECH: Pathways in Technology Early College High School. This model was developed by IBM and first implemented in a single Brooklyn high school in 2011. P-TECHs require collaboration among a high school, a community college, and one or more employers. Students enroll in the school for a six-year period, beginning in ninth grade and culminating in an associate degree in a tech field leading to a job in a partner company or transfer to a four-year college or university. As of 2021, there were nearly 250 P-TECHs serving over 150,000 students in 12 states and 28 countries.28

It is difficult to estimate the number of early college high schools in the nation, especially because some states, including Massachusetts, have developed an ECHS model that focuses on programs within comprehensive high schools rather than a whole-school model. A conservative guess, based on our knowledge of the field, would place the number of ECHSs around at least 1,000, in addition to the P-TECHs.

The Pathways to Prosperity Network, as mentioned above, was designed to combine the strengths of career academies and early college high schools. The goal was to help member states and regions develop career pathways systems that combine academic and career learning, span grades 9–14, and ultimately help young people get launched in high-growth, high-demand fields where they could expect to earn a living wage and have opportunities for upward mobility and further education. As with career academies and ECHSs, career pathways programs have been deliberately designed to serve students from groups that have historically been underrepresented in higher education and focused on career fields with the greatest opportunities for growth and mobility.

Over the past 12 years, the Pathways Network has supported the development of career pathways systems in over a dozen states, metropolitan regions, and big cities. Among the states that have been with the Pathways Network the longest and have made the most progress are Arizona, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Texas. Of these, Delaware is furthest along in scaling career pathways into a mainstream system. (It’s easy to dismiss Delaware’s success because of its small size, but we argue that the core design principles of Delaware Pathways are relevant for all states.)

Delaware Pathways has been the subject of three case studies since 2019.29 All have commented on the thoughtful way the program has been designed and developed. Delaware Pathways is the product of a genuine public/private partnership, with strong political leadership from two successive governors, excellent executive leadership from the former state CTE director, and strong support from private and nonprofit sector leaders. A cross-sector steering committee developed a strategic plan by mapping the regional labor market, identifying 12 high-demand and high-growth industry sectors with good middle- and high-skill jobs, and then slowly developing and making available to the high schools course materials for 24 CTE programs of study, all aligned with programs at Delaware Tech, the state’s single statewide multicampus community college. Beginning with 27 students from one high school enrolled in an advanced manufacturing program at Delaware Tech in 2014, Delaware Pathways now serves over 50 percent of the high school students in the state, with over 20 percent of students earning some type of postsecondary credit before graduation.

The career pathways movement has now spread well beyond the members of the Pathways Network. Several other national organizations in addition to Jobs for the Future are active in this space, including Education Strategy Group, Advance CTE, New America, and ExcelinEd, as well as state-based organizations like the Linked Learning Alliance in California and CareerWise in Colorado. There is also a consortium of national funders that is fueling the further development and expansion of the career pathways movement.

The Role of Community Colleges in Career Pathways

As the career pathways movement has evolved, community colleges have emerged as central institutional players, sitting between high schools on the one side and employers on the other. In our experience, employers have generally been more willing to engage with community colleges than with high schools, though building such partnerships is not without challenges.30 Many American employers, unlike their counterparts in youth apprenticeship countries like Germany and Switzerland, have a difficult time imagining that 16-year-olds can be productive contributors to their bottom line. Consequently, they are more willing to invest in training older students who are closer to the point of employment.

Community colleges at their best are the nimblest, most market-oriented institutions in our postsecondary education system. However, they face many challenges that impede their ability to enable the career pathways movement to scale. First, community colleges are multipurpose institutions serving a broad range of constituencies, not just career-focused 18-year-olds. In many states, community colleges were created primarily to provide students a low-cost way of starting a four-year degree. As a result, many are seen and funded as transfer institutions, with little or no support for workforce development. Although community colleges serve the highest-need students in our postsecondary system, including half of Hispanic undergraduate students and 40 percent of African American undergraduate students,31 they are the least well-funded colleges in our system. A 2020 estimate found the funding gap between community colleges and their four-year public counterparts to be $78 billion, which translates to an $8,800 per student revenue difference.32

Community colleges have been the beneficiary of the huge growth in dual enrollment in the last few years—from 800,000 students in 2009 to 1.5 million today. There are now 1 million students under the age of 18 enrolled in community colleges, accounting for 17 percent of community college enrollments in credit-bearing courses. This continuing growth—a 16 percent increase just from 2021 to 2023—has enabled community college enrollments to stabilize after a precipitous decline during COVID-19.33

Perhaps the most striking national example of the growth of the college-in-high-school movement is at Dallas College, where nearly 30,000 dual credit high school students are enrolled. These students constitute nearly a third of the college’s 100,000 credit-seeking students. A substantial number of these students are in ECHSs or P-TECHs. Collectively, in 2022, these students were awarded 2,100 credentials and earned over 235,000 credit hours.34

The growth in dual enrollment presents an opportunity for community colleges that is linked to a larger challenge: to ensure that all course-taking leads to credentials with value in the labor market, whether or not the student decides eventually to pursue a four-year degree. This will require high schools and their community college partners to strategically design dual enrollment programs to ensure courses are connected to academic and career majors while discouraging random course-taking. Fortunately, the major reform initiative in community colleges over the last decade has been the adoption of guided pathways, a strategy to channel student course-taking into pathways leading to academic or career majors that are aligned with in-demand regional industries.35

What do community colleges look like when they operate on the premise that any student who walks in the door, including dual enrollment high school students, is there for economic opportunity and advancement? To answer this question, Schwartz and our former colleague Rachel Lipson recently coedited a volume of case studies profiling the work of five community colleges: Lorain County Community College in Ohio, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, Pima Community College in Arizona, and San Jacinto College in Texas. America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity documents the internal policies and practices that enable these colleges to focus so intently on the goal of providing economic opportunity and mobility for their students. Most importantly, these colleges realize that to deliver on that goal, they must position themselves as go-to players in their regional workforce and economic development ecosystems to align their programs with current labor market needs and help shape the future regional economy. These colleges illustrate the comparative advantage that good community colleges have over high schools in bringing industry leaders to the table and providing meaningful work experiences for students.

The Evidence on Career Pathways

The career pathways movement is little more than a decade old, so there is scant evidence on the most important metric: the labor market outcomes of graduates. However, we do have credible evidence on the two foundational initiatives on which the career pathways movement has been built: career academies and early college high schools.

Thirty years ago, a multisite, eight-year study compared 1,400 career academy students with a similar number of carefully matched nonacademy students. The researchers found that academy graduates earned about $2,000 more annually than their counterparts. The effects were even more significant for Black males, who earned $30,000 more than their counterparts over the eight years. Overall, there was no difference between the two groups in high school graduation rates or postsecondary attainment rates. Roughly 90 percent of both groups graduated high school and half earned a postsecondary credential.36

Another rigorous study of career academies in North Carolina found that enrollment increased the likelihood of high school graduation and college enrollment by about 8 percentage points, but only for male students.37 A multiyear evaluation of Linked Learning—a California-based academies model—found that participants were 2 percentage points less likely to drop out of high school and 3 percentage points more likely to graduate high school.38

Since 2010, an outside evaluation firm has tracked the impact of participation in NAF academies on graduation rates. The most recent four-year study found that students in NAF academies had a 6 percent higher high school graduation rate than nonacademy students. For at-risk students, the NAF academy effect was even stronger, a 10 percent difference.39

With regard to early college high schools, there have been two substantial studies monitoring impact. The first was a lottery-based, random assignment study of students enrolled in 10 ECHSs from 2005 to 2011. Researchers found that ECHS students were significantly more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in college, and attain a postsecondary degree than comparison group students. The postsecondary attainment difference was stark: 22 percent (mostly associate degrees) versus 2 percent. And 20 percent of those degrees were attained by students while in high school. Among ECHS students, there were no significant differences by subgroup—all students experienced the benefits of accessing college while in high school.40

The second study, also a lottery-based, randomized control study, followed students from 19 North Carolina ECHSs for 15 years. The results of this substantial study were striking:

  • 49 percent of ECHS students attained a postsecondary credential, compared with 36 percent of control group students
  • 37 percent of ECHS students earned an associate degree, compared with 14 percent of control group students
  • 28 percent of ECHS students earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with 25 percent of control group students

ECHS students also earned their degrees more rapidly than non-ECHS students. ECHS associate degree holders saved two years, while ECHS bachelor’s degree holders saved six months.41

Massachusetts is a relative newcomer to the early college high school network, having launched its first ECHS programs in 2017. The state now has more than 6,000 ECHS students enrolled in 48 programs, involving 58 high schools and 27 postsecondary education partners (mostly community colleges).42 The Massachusetts ECHS program model is career-focused, with partners targeting one or more career areas in their application for state funding. Early results are promising, particularly with regard to college enrollment immediately after high school:

  • 69 percent of all ECHS students enrolled in college, compared with 54 percent of matched peers
  • 61 percent of economically disadvantaged ECHS students enrolled in college, compared with 45 percent of matched peers
  • 63 percent of Black and Hispanic ECHS students enrolled in college, compared with 48 percent of matched peers

Results are also promising for college persistence, with 60 percent of ECHS students returning for their second year, compared with 44 percent of matched students.43

Career-Connected Learning at Scale

Before turning to broader implications for policy and practice, we’d like to briefly describe strategies that two jurisdictions are pursuing to scale career pathways with quality: Career Connect Washington and FutureReadyNYC.

Career Connect Washington

Career Connect Washington’s comprehensive approach offers a powerful strategy. The Washington story began with a 2017 alarm-bell report from the state’s Business Roundtable highlighting a projected 30 percent gap between the number of jobs requiring some postsecondary education or other credential and the number of young adults with such a credential.44 That same year, Governor Jay Inslee announced the creation of a task force co-led by the Microsoft president and the chair of the state’s Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board to address this problem. The task force’s report45 led to the design and development of Career Connect Washington (CCW). The program was launched in 2019, supported by legislative authorization and funding.

At the heart of the CCW plan is a three-stage framework for career development: Career Explore, Career Prep, and Career Launch. The first two stages are designed to ensure that by the time students arrive at their senior year of high school, they have had systematic year-by-year exposure to the world of work and careers, career-aligned classroom instruction, and hands-on work experience through an internship or pre-apprenticeship program. Career Launch is really the focus of CCW, requiring meaningful, high-quality job experience, aligned classroom learning, and an industry certification or other credential with value in the labor market. These criteria are defined with an admirable degree of specificity. Although Career Launch is aimed primarily at graduating seniors, it is also designed to serve young adults up to age 29, especially since the expansion of Registered Apprenticeships is a key element in the Career Launch program. One of the distinguishing features of CCW is that organized labor has been a core partner from the inception of the program.

What is most striking about CCW is its strategy for getting to the goal of 60 percent of the class of 2030 completing a Career Launch program by age 29. At the state level, there is an extraordinary coalition of about a dozen state agencies, business and industry organizations, labor organizations, and equity-focused nonprofits. The initiative is led by a small team with a dotted line to the governor’s office but carried out primarily through a highly decentralized regional structure supported by two types of competitive grants.

Each region has a funded intermediary organization with convening and coordinating responsibilities. Cutting across the regions is a network of funded “program builders,” organizations responsible for expanding existing Career Explore, Prep, and Launch programs or creating new ones. Program builders can be industry sector organizations, trade unions, workforce intermediaries, community colleges, or education service districts. CCW recently funded employer associations in 10 key industries to expand employer participation and ensure that Career Launch programs meet industry needs. This is not an act of charity by employers; it is in their economic best interest to ensure that they have a productive workforce.

There is also an extraordinary student-facing online directory§ of career-connected learning programs with links to support services that can help remove barriers to participation. Across all three stages, CCW is carefully tracking completion by subgroups within regions and industries. These disaggregated reporting requirements typify the very strong equity current that runs through the entire initiative. As of summer 2023, there are over 19,000 enrollees in Career Launch programs, a 30 percent enrollment increase since 2019. With nearly 6,000 Career Launch completers already, CCW is off to an impressive start.46


New York City, with approximately 915,000 public school students,47 is by far the largest school district in the nation. In 2019, the mayor’s office published CareerReady NYC, a landmark report48 two years in the making, produced by a working group of representatives from the New York City Public Schools, the City University of New York, the Department of Youth and Community Development, the mayor’s office, employer organizations, and a variety of youth-serving organizations across the city. The report laid out a compelling vision of a coherent, coordinated K–16 system that would provide developmentally appropriate experiences across the age span designed to prepare all young people for college and career success. Unfortunately, this report sat on the shelf, without political or educational leadership to act on the vision.

Fast forward to 2022, when a new mayor, Eric Adams, and a new schools chancellor, David Banks, declared career pathways a major priority of the new administration. Chancellor Banks established a new Office of Student Pathways with the goal of ensuring “that each student graduates on a pathway to a rewarding career and long-term economic security, equipped to be a positive force for change.”49 This office created the Student Pathways initiative, with the FutureReadyNYC program as a cornerstone to meet that goal.

FutureReadyNYC has five components, with some further along in implementation than others. All participating students currently receive (1) career-connected instruction ranging from broad awareness to specific career preparation, (2) early college credits and credentials that demonstrate skills employers value, and (3) work-based learning (including workshops and paid internships). The last two components are being built out: (4) personalized college and career advising and (5) financial literacy education.50 (The latter is especially important for students to be able to make an informed cost-benefit analysis of their postsecondary education and training options.) To ensure students’ career-focused learning is meaningful and leads to practical job skills, students choose a pathway in one of four high-wage, high-demand sectors: technology, business, healthcare, or education.

What’s most striking about this strategy is that FutureReadyNYC is embedded in a comprehensive citywide initiative coordinated out of the mayor’s office that includes the other two major youth-serving organizations in the city, the City University of New York and the Department of Youth and Community Development (an agency that connects 100,000 city youths to jobs through its Summer Youth Employment Program). In December 2023, the mayor’s office released Pathways to an Inclusive Economy: An Action Plan for Young Adult Career Success. This 65-page plan provides a detailed road map to accomplish the following five goals:

  1. Expand career-connected learning at every stage of a young person’s journey….
  2. [Provide] early interventions to ensure youth and young adults remain connected to career pathways….
  3. Re-engage young people who are now out of school and out of work….
  4. Improve data collection and analytics to support stronger transitions, promote continuous improvement, and … address … disparities….
  5. Implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to improve and expand employer engagement.51

With this action plan, city leaders have declared their intention to make career-connected learning a new mainstream system designed to put all city youth on a path to career success.

Implications for Policy and Practice

What are the implications of our findings for policy and practice? We offer six takeaways from this summary of CTE and career pathways and from our broader research and experience in the field:

  1. CTE is the critical building block for spreading career-connected learning to most high school students. As we document, the evidence shows improved academic outcomes for students, especially for those students who take at least three courses in a career field and participate in an aligned work-based learning experience.
  2. As the Delaware, Washington state, and New York City examples illustrate, political leadership is critical for building the cross-sector coalition needed to develop and support a new college and career readiness system that benefits all students.
  3. Career readiness needs to begin at least as early as the middle grades, including through career exploration, and extend across the secondary/postsecondary divide. Dual enrollment, especially through the career-focused early college high school model, is the best vehicle for helping students attain a first postsecondary credential with value in the regional labor market.
  4. Community colleges are better positioned than high schools to engage industry leaders in the co-creation of programs leading to meaningful career opportunities, a crucial element in successful programs. One of the best ways to engage employers is through sector-based organizations. Sector associations can help employers understand that engaging with young people helps them build a reliable talent pipeline at a time when they are struggling to acquire talent.
  5. Work-based learning, especially paid internships or aligned summer jobs, is a critical element of career-connected learning. Essential professional skills (teamwork, communication, problem-solving) are best learned in well-structured work settings, not in classrooms. Experiential learning writ large should be a core element embedded in all educational programs from kindergarten through college.

We also have suggestions for two key areas needing more innovation and investment:

  1. Career counseling in schools and career services in colleges, as currently structured, are woefully inadequate for a fully implemented career-connected education system. This is an area crying out for experimentation. In Switzerland, this function is seen as so important that it is carried out not through the schools but through a network of community-based information and counseling centers staffed by professionals and accessible to all parents and students.52 We offer this as an example of the kind of fresh thinking this issue requires.
  2. The development of strong, well-staffed, employer-facing intermediary organizations that operate between schools and companies to scaffold and support both sets of institutions as they scale up quality work-based learning opportunities is crucial. Intermediaries can be especially important in enabling small and medium-size companies to participate, sometimes serving as employers of record to handle payroll and other logistical matters that are seen as barriers to participation.

Lastly, we offer four specific state policy recommendations to facilitate career-connected education at scale:

  1. In some states, seat-time requirements are real or perceived barriers to the expansion of internships and other forms of extended work-based learning. States must make it clear to districts and schools that they have the flexibility to provide academic credit, as well as compensation, to students for structured and documented learning that occurs outside the classroom, whether during the school day, after school, or in the summer. Learning should be the focus, with schools having sufficient flexibility over time and resource use to maximize learning opportunities for all students.
  2. If community colleges are expected to become central players in a career-connected learning system, legislatures need to fund them appropriately and hold them more accountable for student outcomes. This means funding systems that acknowledge that career programs are more expensive to operate than academic programs, and using accountability systems that focus less on enrollment and program completion and more on labor market outcomes. Texas just passed legislation that trades a substantial increase in state funding, with special support for expansion of dual enrollment and for adults seeking short-term credentials, for improved labor market outcomes.53 We think this is a model that other states should study.
  3. Employers play a crucial role in providing work-based learning opportunities for students. Therefore, we believe it is worth exploring incentives for employers who agree to provide high-quality, structured internships or other forms of substantial work-based learning, especially for students unlikely to find such opportunities on their own. There are some states, notably South Carolina, that provide tax credits for employers that participate in the state apprenticeship program. We think this is a policy other states should examine, especially for programs designed to increase the flow of well-prepared workers into high-demand fields.
  4. States must improve coordination between education, labor, and economic development departments to facilitate stronger alignment between schools and regional economic growth strategies. Improving economic outcomes for students requires building programs of study that lead to high-demand, high-paying careers. In Massachusetts, the governor created a Workforce Skills Cabinet, which brings together the executive offices of Education, Labor and Workforce Development, and Housing and Economic Development to oversee a common economic growth strategy. To date, this cabinet has issued several grants to CTE schools and intermediaries to support programs in strategic industries, like advanced manufacturing and cybersecurity. Cross-agency coordination is also crucial for states to develop longitudinal data systems to track student academic and economic outcomes from K–12 into the workforce, enabling policymakers and practitioners to understand which programs work, and for which students.

Our recommendations have focused mainly on states, but we close with a word about the federal role in advancing career-connected education. Today’s federal policy environment is striking: there is an unprecedented focus on education and workforce development that extends well beyond the US Department of Education. In 2022, the Departments of Education, Labor, and Commerce joined together to launch an extraordinary cross-agency initiative, “Raise the Bar: Unlocking Career Success.” The initiative aligns closely with the pathways vision we outline in this article, including by expanding access to career-focused dual enrollment, work-based learning, credentials of value alongside the four-year degree, and sufficient exposure to the world of work to enable informed student choice of pathways beyond high school.

Furthermore, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CHIPS and Science Act provide unprecedented resources for workforce development, with a focus on training Americans for high-paying, high-demand jobs that do not require a four-year degree.54 These new federal investments underline the broader economic importance of bringing career-connected learning to scale. The nation needs more young people with the skills that the best CTE and career pathways programs are designed to produce.

By expanding and strengthening CTE and career pathways, we can address the technical skills gaps that impede economic growth while putting millions of young people from low-income families on a path to the middle class. A career-connected education system—based in evidence—can improve outcomes for all young people. Now is the time for systemic transformation; we have the knowledge and tools to do so.

Robert Schwartz is a cofounder of and senior advisor for the Project on Workforce at Harvard University. His previous roles include high school teacher and principal, education advisor to the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts, education director of the Pew Charitable Trusts, founding president of Achieve, and Harvard education professor. He is also the author or editor of numerous reports and books on career pathways, most recently America’s Hidden Economic Engines: How Community Colleges Can Drive Shared Prosperity, which he coedited with Rachel Lipson. Kerry McKittrick is codirector of the Project on Workforce. Previously, she was a senior manager at Jobs for the Future and a senior policy advisor on education, labor, and workforce development issues for Congressman Jim Langevin. The authors would like to thank Sara Allan (Valhalla Foundation), Kate Kreamer (Advance CTE), and Abigail Smith (Bain & Company) for their thoughtful reviews of an early draft of this article.

*State definitions of "CTE concentrator" vary, but we would argue that students should take at least three CTE courses to be considered a concentrator. (return to article)

To learn about the 16 career clusters, visit (return to article)

Registered Apprenticeships are industry driven and approved by either a state agency or the US Department of Labor. To learn more, visit (return to article)

§To explore this directory, visit (return to article)


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[Illustrations by Rachel Sender]


American Educator, Spring 2024