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#AskExcelinEd: What exactly do we mean by “career pathways”?

• Quentin Suffren


Across states, there is considerable—and justifiable—political and economic momentum behind expanding career pathways for students and young adults. Indeed, it’s one of the rare bipartisan issues in education right now. (We hope it stays that way.)

What exactly do we mean when we use the term “career pathway”?

In reality, it’s an evolving concept. In decades past, this term might have conveyed vocational training—typically at the secondary level—that prepared graduates for jobs in the trades or other careers that were not on the college track. Some were good jobs, to be sure. But there was also a darker rationale behind these vocational education pathways: that these jobs were for students who weren’t considered to be college material—a judgment often grounded in racial, gender and/or economic bias.

Times have changed for the better. Career and technical education (CTE) programs have made strides to shed the stigma of vocational education and added more pathways aligned to middle- and higher- wage careers. (We are especially interested in seeing state CTE programs provide a strong foundation for these efforts.)

Business and industry representatives have become more increasingly involved in determining what those pathways should be and require, in terms of preparation and credentials. And policymakers and educators are in stronger agreement that academic education and workforce training can be combined in schools and colleges (and applied in real-world contexts) for mutual benefit.

But there is more to be done. Many states and regions still need to take bold action to scale development of and access to pathways aligned to a wider range of high-wage, high-skill careers.

For instance, K-12 systems and postsecondary institutions need to align their programs more closely to industry demand. Businesses need to do a better job of realistically articulating the skills required to succeed in open positions (as opposed to defaulting to a bachelor’s degree, for instance). And all parties need to work together to provide parents and students with more information about potential career options related to student interests and labor market data. Meanwhile, the steady drumbeat of predictions about automation and artificial intelligence as disruptive forces portend a not-so-distant future in which all learners and workers will need to be more digitally savvy and adaptable to re-skill and access opportunities not yet even in existence.

Even with these challenges ahead, the very notion of “career pathways” for policymakers and educators now implies expanded future opportunities for learners, not more limited ones.

So back to the term itself. Below is both a definition along with a list of assumptions—and in some cases, aspirations—we hold for “career pathways.”

The Definition of Career Pathways

Career pathways typically refer to a sequential and progressive set of coursework, experiences and credentials that:

  1. Span both secondary and postsecondary education, as well as work-based contexts;
  2. Are closely aligned with industry standards and demand; and
  3. Prepare learners not only for entry to a specific job, but also continued career advancement over time.
A Set of Assumptions and Aspirations for Career Pathways
  • They are informed and supported by strong cross-sector partnerships among K-12 schools and districts, postsecondary institutions, and business and industry.
  • They are aligned to higher wage and higher skills careers that are in-demand at the state and/or regional levels.
  • They feature seamless transitions between secondary, postsecondary and work-based learning opportunities.
  • The coursework is rigorous enough to prepare students for additional training and advancement.
  • The credentials offered and earned are highly valued by business and industry, as well as progressive or “stackable” wherever possible.
  • The experiences span the full spectrum of applied and work-based learning opportunities, beginning early in learners’ education and growing steadily over time.
  • They provide learners with the agency and information to make well-informed decisions about their career options.
  • They regularly incorporate digital skills and updated technology training.
  • They are accessible to all.

Depending on the region or state, these may be much more aspiration than assumption. However, it’s worth articulating as both, if only to jumpstart necessary conversations and support state efforts to strengthen long-term opportunities for students.

For more on career pathways and career and technical education, visit ExcelinEd’s College & Career Pathways page.

About the author

Quentin Suffren

As Innovation Policy Managing Director, Quentin oversees Personalized Learning, College and Career Pathways and Course Access policies at ExcelinEd. Previously, Quentin served as executive director of the college, career, and military preparation at the Texas Education Agency. He also held leadership positions with Amplify Education, an education consulting and technology firm, TNTP, and The Learning Institute. Quentin began his career as a high school English teacher. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Memphis.