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Barriers in Career Exploration
January 2021


What evidence exists on how some education practices may create barriers to equity and access in students’ career exploration and development?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Advance CTE: State Leaders Connecting Learning to Work American School Counselor Association (ASCA). (2018). The state of career technical education: career advising and development. Author.

From the Abstract:
"Career advising and development is an increasingly prevalent topic in policy conversations, but too often only focuses on high school-level strategies. Learners should see a clear line through their education from career awareness to exploration to planning, and this can only occur if strategies and initiatives are aligned across grade levels and policy initiatives. Advance CTE partnered with the American School Counselor Association to conduct research with State CTE Directors to find out what's working, and what isn't, at the state and local levels. The report finds that, across the board, states are not overly confident in the effectiveness of their career advising and development systems. Fifty-eight percent believe they are only somewhat effectively serving K-12 students, and 55 percent believe they are either only somewhat effective or not effective at serving postsecondary CTE students. And while school counselors who connect students with CTE coursework and career pathways find it an effective career advising and development strategy, relatively few are able to make these connections."

Albritton, K., Cureton, J. L., Byrd, J. A., & Storlie, C. A. (2020). Exploring perceptions of the path to work/life success among middle school students of color. Journal of Career Development, 47(4), 440–453. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"There are limited empirical studies examining career-related activities for Black and Latino/a students during the middle school years. Using a constant comparison method, this study examined the narrative data of 63 Black and Latino/a middle school students regarding their perceptions of work and life success. The results of this analysis revealed five overarching themes: exposure, support, attainment, family, and effort/persistence. Implications for career and school professionals, as well as the significance of school–family–community partnerships, are discussed."

Arbeit, C. A., Leu, K. B., & Dalton, B. (2017). Secondary career and technical education: Differences in access, participation, and outcomes in two national studies. Washington, DC: National Center for Innovation in Career and Technical Education, U.S. Department of Education.

From the Abstract:
"This study examines gaps in CTE participation rates and outcomes of CTE participants across a number of background characteristics. The report identifies gaps and provides multiple measures of gaps based on student and school characteristics over time at the national level. Specifically, the study focuses on four key characteristics: sex, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), and urbanicity of student’s school locale."

Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE). (2018). Career exploration in middle school: Setting students on the path to success. Author.

From the Abstract:
"Middle school is a natural time for students to learn about careers and develop skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork through career exploration activities. This report from the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE) examines different approaches to supporting career exploration in middle school and highlights examples from states. Although pressure to improve test scores and limited school counselor capacity make middle school career exploration challenging, the report examines three common strategies to help students learn about and gain experience in certain career pathways: (1) Exploratory and introductory CTE courses; (2) Career and academic planning; and (3) Extended learning: CTSOs and work-based learning. In short, the report concludes that middle school is a critical time for students to explore different career pathways, and provides six recommendations for practitioners: (1) Incorporate career-related project-based learning in the classroom; (2) Design projects and activities to develop employability skills; (3) Be flexible when offering exploratory and introductory CTE courses; (4) Facilitate academic and career planning with scalable online tools; (5) Enable short-term interactions with business and community leaders; and (6) Provide opportunities for CTSO participation, including financial support when needed."

Bennett, J. V., Alsbury, T. L., & Fan, J. (2016). Mandatory community-based learning in US urban high schools: fair equality of opportunity? International Journal of Leadership in Education, 19(5), 578–616. Full text available at:

From the Abstract:
"This study explores participant experiences at two contrasting high schools in a large, urban school district in crisis who implemented mandatory community-based learning (CBL) (e.g. community service, work-based internships) as a policy of reform. Rawls’ theory of justice as fairness is used to examine capacity of the district formal policy to achieve fair equality of opportunity central to its democratic aims and purposes. Researchers found disparities in equity and access was associated with critical agencies exercised on the part of key school personnel (e.g. internship coordinator) who navigated and resisted contextual structural barriers (i.e. transportation limitations, employer inflexibility, neighborhood economic conditions, cultural and religious norms) differently. Findings suggest implications for U.S. urban school districts with formal policies of mandatory CBL including consideration of local context and exercise of critical agency at multiple district levels prior to implementation in order to build capacity for formal equality of opportunity."

Blustein, D. L., Barnett, M., Mark, S., Depot, M., Lovering, M., Lee, Y., ... & DeBay, D. (2013). Examining urban students’ constructions of a STEM/career development intervention over time. Journal of Career Development, 40(1), 40–67. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Using consensual qualitative research, the study examines urban high school students’ reactions to a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) enrichment/ career development program, their resources and barriers, their perspectives on the impact of race and gender on their career development, and their overall views of work and their futures. The sample included nine students who participated in a semi-structured interview at the end of the 2-week summer program and again 12–18 months later. The results indicate that the students continued to explore STEM fields after the summer program, reported increases in STEM knowledge, described strong identifications with their racial and gender-based identities, and identified relevant resources and barriers affecting their STEM education and career development. Suggestions for further research and program development are discussed, including the development of interventions to enhance the supportive elements of students’ relational and educational contexts."

Estes, A., & McCain, B. (2019). Four strategies to address equity in CTE. State Education Standard, 19(3), 10-14.

From the Abstract:
"An evolution has taken place in Career and Technical Education (CTE) over the past few decades. CTE students often go on to graduate high school, enroll in college, and secure high-wage employment at higher rates than their peers. Every learner should have the opportunity to benefit from CTE, but even today many students cannot access these high-quality programs. According to state and national CTE leaders, high-quality CTE programs are more likely to prevail in areas with more concentrated wealth, where communities can afford to equip classrooms with state-of-the-art equipment and attract experienced teachers with competitive salaries. Furthermore, the CTE teacher workforce is overwhelmingly white, while the majority of the U.S. student population is not. Having improved the quality and relevance of CTE, state policymakers find themselves faced with an entirely new dilemma: ensuring access and success for all. Addressing equity in CTE requires first recognizing its conflicted history and taking steps to dismantle historical barriers and construct systems that help each learner access and complete a high-quality CTE program of study where they feel welcome and can participate fully. This article details some strategies CTE program administrators can implement to better serve marginalized populations; (1) Remove barriers to access; (2) Take steps to ensure learner success; (3) Make a path forward with the right policies, systems and attitudes; and (4) Members of state boards of education must ask the right questions of state agencies and encourage leadership to capitalize on the new opportunities in Perkins V. During planning, state boards should be asking the following questions: (1) How will Perkins V funds support increased access to special populations to close equity gaps and increase attainment of industry credentials; (2) What is the right division of resources between secondary and postsecondary programs; and (3) How will the expanded reserve fund be used to incentivize high-quality CTE programs and encourage innovation?"

Godbey, S., & Gordon, H. R. (2019). Career exploration at the middle school level: Barriers and opportunities. Middle Grades Review, 5(2), 1–8.

From the Abstract:
"In this essay, we discuss issues related to the integration of career exploration in our nation's middle schools. We discuss the theoretical and empirical basis for career exploration at the middle school level and identify selected barriers to its effective implementation, namely with regards to career advising and parent involvement. We also propose new directions for practice and research as we work to counteract these barriers."

Grimes, L. E., Arrastía-Chisholm, M. A., & Bright, S. B. (2019). How can they know what they don’t know? The beliefs and experiences of rural school counselors about STEM career advising. Theory & Practice in Rural Education, 9(1), 74–90. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Many factors contribute to the educational challenges students face in rural areas, including a lack of funding compared to urban and suburban schools and a lack of role models pursuing postsecondary education. School counselors in all settings are trained to provide education to students about the postsecondary options in demand. College and career counseling with students and families in rural areas requires unique understanding of the rural characteristics that shape community life and family dynamics. National attention on rural education has highlighted a particular need for advising into STEM career fields. Using a phenomenological approach, the researchers examine the beliefs and experiences of eight school counselors working in rural schools regarding there lived experiences of advising students in their rural areas about careers in STEM. Three themes about STEM-focused career development emerged from the interviews with the school counselors, a lack of opportunities and resources, challenging local influences, and ideas for much needed place-based innovations. Implications are discussed for several key players with the ability to improve and increase STEM advising for rural students. Examples include the following: for practicing school counselors, intentional career counseling efforts that include rural families; for counselor educators, the addition of rural field placements and assignments focused on rural student career needs; and for rural communities, combining the school counselor’s efforts with local business and industry to highlight and increase STEM career awareness for students and their families."

Hamilton, A. F., Malin, J., & Hackmann, D. (2015). Racial/ethnic and gender equity patterns in Illinois high school career and technical education coursework. Journal of Career and Technical Education, 30(1), 29–52.

From the Abstract:
"This study analyzed high school Career and Technical Education (CTE) enrollments in Illinois, with comparisons to national data when possible, by career cluster and pathway and with respect to gender and racial/ethnic makeup of students. Enrollment patterns in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) CTE programming were emphasized. Gender and ethnicity-based inequities were found in certain areas and more equitable patterns were apparent in others. Of concern, student enrollment in courses fitting within STEM pathways included substantially greater male than female participation (64.1% male vs. 35.9% female), whereas other pathways showed the reverse enrollment pattern (45.0% male and 55.0% female). With respect to ethnicity, all subgroups except White students were underrepresented in CTE programming in general. The underrepresentation was exacerbated for all but Asian students when concerning STEM CTE programming. Considering implications, we recommend heightened focus, support, and goal setting concerning equity of CTE programming."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: (practice OR policy OR policies) AND (barriers OR obstacles) AND (access OR equity) AND ("career exploration" OR "career development" OR "career investigation"), ("High school" OR "middle school" OR secondary), Participation

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.