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Learning from Student Voice: Most High Schoolers Feel Unprepared for College and Careers

Date: August 10, 2015

Jen Wilka

Former Executive Director, YouthTruth

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School’s out for summer. At YouthTruth, that means time for reflection, innovation, and preparation for the year ahead — including taking a deeper look at the aggregate student perception data we’ve accrued from surveys of hundreds of thousands of students around the country.

At a time when more and more high school graduates are enrolling in college and looking for work, we wanted to explore what we could learn about college and career readiness directly from the source — the students themselves.

We analyzed data collected from some 165,000 high school students between the 2010-11 and 2014-15 school years, and found a number of interesting results.

First, while the vast majority of high school students want to go to college, most feel unprepared to do so. inlineEighty-seven percent of students surveyed said they want to go to college, while only 2.8 percent do not, and ten percent aren’t sure. When asked to think about their expectations rather than their aspirations, the numbers start dropping — 70 percent of students said they expect to go to a two- or four-year college. But here’s the sobering reality — less than half of students, only 45 percent, felt positively about their college and career readiness.

Second, students tend to feel less prepared for future careers than they do for college. In the eyes of students, the college readiness barometer is lukewarm at best. Sixty percent of students agreed that their school has helped them develop the skills and knowledge they will need for college-level classes, and 56 percent agreed that their school has helped them understand the steps they will need to take to apply to college. When it comes to careers, however, only 49 percent of students say their school has helped them navigate those steps, and only 46 percent agree that their school has helped them figure out which careers match their interests and abilities. While this may seem intuitive since careers are further out on the horizon than college, it has important implications for high schools seeking to make learning relevant and prepare students for 21st century jobs.

And third, students are by and large not taking advantage of support services to prepare them for future goals. When asked about a variety of services — from college entrance exam preparation to counseling about how to apply for and pay for college or counseling about future career possibilities — on average, only a third of surveyed students (and only half of seniors) reported using these services. For example, 36 percent of high school students said they used counseling about future career possibilities — including 37 percent of juniors and 48 percent of seniors. When it comes to counseling about how to pay for college, less than a quarter of all surveyed students — just 23 percent — said they had used this service, including 23 percent of juniors and 44 percent of seniors. While it may be tempting to isolate only the proportion of seniors utilizing these services, administrators, teachers, parents, and students themselves know that preparing for a future beyond high school is a process that begins well before 12th grade.

So what?

This aggregate data raises some sobering flags. And like most data, it also raises more questions. Why are students at some schools in my district underutilizing college admissions counseling even though the same program is offered district wide? Why are students rating counseling about how to apply for college as less helpful than counseling about college admissions requirements?

Schools across the country are already hard at work trying to better prepare students for a successful future — and, based on this data, students clearly recognize there is work to be done. We believe that this data provides a helpful comparative context to college and career readiness efforts. Our findings have already gained exposure in several national publications, including Education Week, EdSource, and Politico’s Morning Edition, and we hope that they will spark conversations and ideas in schools across the country about effectively preparing students for life after high school.

Jen Vorse Wilka is executive director of YouthTruth, a national program that harnesses student perceptions to help K-12 educators accelerate improvements in schools and classrooms. Follow YouthTruth on Twitter at @Youth_Truth.



Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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