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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

College and Career Readiness

April 2018


What does the research say about the initiatives and programs that have the greatest impact on youth employability?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on initiatives and programs with the greatest impact on youth employability. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the Methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Brand, B. (2009). High school career academies: A 40-year proven model for improving college and career readiness. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “High school career academies are a time-tested model for improving academic outcomes and preparing students for both college and careers. Career academies (1) are smaller learning communities taught by a team of interdisciplinary teachers, (2) provide a rigorous academic curriculum based on a career theme that demonstrates how knowledge is used and applied in career fields, and (3) partner with colleges and employers to provide opportunities for dual enrollment, internships, and increased mentoring by adults. With a strong research base, career academies have been shown to have positive impacts on attendance, earned credits, and high school graduation and college attendance rates. Additionally, participation in a career academy increased post-high school employment rates and earnings, particularly for at-risk young men. Career academies are also unique by having created National Standards of Practice that guide the model’s continuous improvement. This publication provides an overview of career academies along with policy recommendations to expand the model.”

Cahill, C., Hoffman, N., Loyd, A., & Vargas, J. (2014). State strategies for sustaining and scaling grades 9-14 career pathways: Toward a policy set for Pathways to Prosperity. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This brief begins with a discussion of the composition of state leadership teams and organizing structures for supporting a Pathways to Prosperity Network initiative, and then describes effective strategies currently at play in the network states for jumpstarting work in the regions. It goes on to review state policies that support 9-14 collaborations, including dual enrollment, career and technical education policy, and funding. The 9-14 career pathways policy lever is well developed as a result of extensive work by several organizations, including Jobs for the Future (JFF), which has a decade of experience in high school-to-post-secondary transitions that incorporate dual enrollment. JFF has also developed a specific 9-14 policy set to support Early College Designs. The organization has led the Early College High School Initiative nationally since 2002. The paper then becomes more speculative. In the sections on career advising, employer engagement, and intermediaries, the paper lists and briefly describes policies that could be deployed in the service of 9-14 career pathways development, but are not currently widespread or designed specifically to support 9-14 career pathways. These sections are shorter, and while they do include some examples, they also point in new directions that might be explored and raise questions about where state-level policies are needed and where regional and local decision making are more effective.”

Castellano, M., Sundell, K. E., Overman, L. T., Richardson, G. B., & Stone, J. R. (2014). Rigorous tests of student outcomes in CTE programs of study: Final report. Louisville, KY: National Research Center for Career and Technical Education. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study was designed to investigate the relationship between participation in federally mandated college and career-preparatory programs—known as programs of study (POS)—and high school achievement outcomes. POS are an organized approach to college and career readiness that offer an aligned sequence of courses spanning secondary and postsecondary education, blending standards-based academic and technical content, allowing students to earn postsecondary credit while in high school, and leading to an industry-recognized credential or certificate at the postsecondary level or an associate or baccalaureate degree. The sample includes 6,638 students from three urban districts in three different states. This study employed a multi-method, longitudinal, quasi-experimental design. Qualitative measures included adherence to the legislatively mandated components of POS. In the quantitative portion of the study, we employed two different statistical approaches to the data in each district. First, we estimated the effects of enrolling in POS and the number of career and technical education (CTE) credits earned on GPA and graduation using an instrumental variable approach. In addition, we also addressed specific policy questions about completing a POS compared to other high school trajectories through posthoc multiple regression analyses. The outcomes show that in the first district, enrollment in POS schools caused more students to graduate by increasing the number of CTE credits they earned. In all three districts, earning more CTE credits was associated with graduation, although the results for the other two districts did not support the type of causal inferences we were able to draw from the first district’s outcomes. We also found that POS students earned significantly more STEM or AP credits than comparison students, depending on the implementation context. POS students outperformed other students on technical measures at little to no cost to overall academic achievement. Across all districts, participation in programs associated with accruing college credits in high school (e.g., dual enrollment) was low, as was the incidence of earning an industry-recognized credential, two key elements of POS. We lacked the research funding to examine whether POS led to postsecondary degrees; however, senior exit survey results indicated that similar numbers of intervention and comparison students planned to attend a four-year college full time. This suggests that POS can be offered to high school students with no harm to their college aspirations or preparation. In addition, significantly more POS students indicated that their college studies would be related to their high school program, suggesting that students who enroll in a POS often continue their education in the same program area, and reap the benefits of having begun that preparation while still in high school. Our primary recommendation is for districts to seek ways to increase the number of CTE credits earned by high school students, because in all three districts, earning more CTE credits was associated with graduation. Other recommendations include re-examining dual enrollment programs so that more students participate, encouraging more people from industry backgrounds to become high school teachers, and improving data collection so that the efficacy of interventions may be better evaluated. All of these recommendations should improve POS, secondary school outcomes, and preparation of our nation’s youth for postsecondary education and careers.”

Cochran, G. R., & Ferrari, T. M. (2009). Preparing youth for the 21st century knowledge economy: Youth programs and workforce preparation. Afterschool Matters, 8, 11–25. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In the 21st century, the idea of preparing youth for the workforce has taken on new meaning. The shift to a knowledge economy has brought widespread concern that young people are entering the workforce without the skills employers value most, such as communication, critical thinking, leadership, and teamwork skills. As youth programs evaluate how to enhance their opportunities for adolescents, workforce preparation should be part of the discussion. In this paper, the authors will make the case for a focus on workforce preparation and examine youth programs as a context for workforce development. Of the many ways to blend youth development and workforce preparation, the authors will focus specifically on work-based learning. They have synthesized principles that can inform youth workforce development, with program examples to illustrate them. Finally, they consider the benefits and challenges of workforce preparation in youth programs and summarize the roles youth programs can take.”

Gemici, S., & Rojewski, J. W. (2010). Contributions of cooperative education in preparing at-risk students for post-high school transition. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 15(3), 241–258. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Work-based learning interventions, particularly cooperative education, are a viable way to support the post-high school transition process, enhance work-related cognitive development, and increase the occupational engagement of at-risk youth. Using propensity score matching to analyze data from the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 (ELS:2002), the impact of participation in cooperative education on two indicators of postsecondary transition readiness, including postsecondary education plans right after high school and importance placed on work, were examined for students deemed at risk of high school failure. Participation in cooperative education had a significant positive effect on at-risk students’ postsecondary education plans right after high school. However, no significant effect was detected for the importance students placed on work.”

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. Although REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible, it was determined that this resource may be of interest to you. It may be found through university or public library systems.

Hoffman, N. (2015). Let’s get real: Deeper learning and the power of the workplace (Deeper Learning Research Series). Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “For young people in the United States, whatever their backgrounds, one of the essential purposes of schooling should be to help them develop the knowledge, skills, and competence needed to search for and obtain work that they find at least reasonably satisfying. Our present educational system does precious little to introduce young people to the working world or to prepare them for just how large a role work is likely to play in the rest of their lives. While the phrase ‘college and career readiness’ appears seemingly everywhere in the current discourse about the goals of high school, the ‘career readiness’ part often seems like an afterthought, tacked on as if to suggest that if students pursue an academic, college-prep course of study—the real priority of most recent school reforms—they will also, as a side benefit, have better job prospects. This lack of attention to career preparation only serves to intensify the class divide, leaving the most privileged students to anticipate and prepare for professional careers like those of their parents, while students from low-income families continue to think of work mainly as a way to survive. This paper argues that the current discussion about deeper learning in the nation’s high schools ought to be reframed in order to acknowledge that career readiness isn’t just an outcome of deeper learning; rather, career readiness is better defined as a process through which young people learn deeply and become prepared for the American version of working life. Hoffman begins by reviewing where the United States now stands with regard to youth experience in the labor market. She turns to a more hopeful subject when she discusses the psychological benefits of learning through a combination of school- and work-based activities. She continues with a description of an existing education system that relies on partnerships between employers, unions, a central government, and educators to make work a source of deeper learning that meets both the developmental needs of young people and the economic need for a steady supply of well-trained talent. She then reviews some promising initiatives that aim to promote high-quality, work-based learning for a wide range of U.S. students.”

Hooker, S., & Brand, B. (2009). Success at every step: How 23 programs support on the path to college and beyond. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum. Retrieved from Full text available at

From the ERIC abstract: “This publication describes 23 programs that have been proven to help young people successfully complete high school and be prepared for success in postsecondary education and careers. These programs represent a wide range of interventions, including school-wide reform initiatives, community-based afterschool services, work-based learning opportunities, and college access programs. From an analysis of the included programs, the report identifies common programmatic and structural elements that may contribute to their effectiveness and summarizes key outcomes. The publication also sets forth a logic model that illustrates the complexity of the process for youth to develop the foundational knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal resources required for success in careers, lifelong learning, and civic engagement, as well as the various systems and service providers that support youth at each step of the developmental pipeline. The report concludes with policy recommendations on how policymakers can support college- and career-readiness for all students.”

Jobs for the Future. (2015). Tapping new pools of talent: Preparing opportunity youth to help fill the skills gap. Boston, MA: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “More than 6 million young people in the United States are out of school, out of work, and, often it seems, out of luck. That’s 17 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24. This population includes dropouts and high school graduates, former foster children and juveniles in court custody; youth caring for siblings and teens cycling in and out of low-wage jobs. Once known as ‘disconnected,’ they are increasingly called ‘opportunity youth.’ Despite growing up in difficult circumstances--they represent a large opportunity for investing in our nation’s workforce and our future. This brief focuses on strategies for strengthening education and employment pathways that prepare opportunity youth for jobs that can lead to productive careers. It is part of a series from JFF’s conference Bridging the Gap: Postsecondary Pathways for Underprepared Learners.”

Kazis, R. (2016). MDRC research on career pathways (Issue Brief). New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “As postsecondary credentials have become increasingly important to accessing higher-quality employment, a growing number of education and workforce programs are implementing ‘career pathways’ approaches to help both youth and adults prepare for further education and better jobs. In recent years, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) has conducted research on a range of career pathways programs and program components. This Issue Brief describes the career pathways approach, highlighting core design elements, and profiles MDRC projects that shed light on the effectiveness of this approach and its potential to improve education and career outcomes.”

Lerman, R. I., & Packer, A. (2015). Youth apprenticeship: A hopeful approach for improving outcomes for Baltimore youth (The Abell Report, Volume 28, No. 2). Baltimore, MD: Abell Foundation. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Youth transitions to rewarding careers remain a critical problem for America’s current and future workforce. In Baltimore, where only one in five graduates of Baltimore City Public Schools matriculates to a four-year college and the unemployment rate for 16 to 19 year-olds is over 40 percent, opportunities to gain meaningful training and work experience are vital. Co-authored by Dr. Robert Lerman and Dr. Arnold Packer, this Abell Report examines the potential role of youth apprenticeship in enhancing student engagement, raising employability skills, and helping young people gain mastery in high demand occupations. It demonstrates that youth apprenticeship is a proven model for low youth unemployment and the development of a highly skilled work force. Legislators, educators, and business leaders have an opportunity to build on existing elements in Baltimore and create a youth apprenticeship pilot program that offers vital work-based learning opportunities to city youth. The report concludes with recommendations necessary to build a successful pilot.”

Levine, A., Winkler, C., & Petersen, S. (2010). The CUNY Young Adult Program—Utilizing social networking to foster interdisciplinary and cross-cohort student communication during workforce training. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 14(3), 74–80. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The Center for Economic and Workforce Development (CEWD) at Kingsborough Community College (KCC) is currently working on a workforce development project that contains innovative teaching tools that proved successful in overcoming issues of academic isolation facing the student body. The CUNY Young Adult Program (CYAP) is a partnership of three City University of New York (CUNY) colleges—LaGuardia Community College (lead organization), KCC’s CEWD and New York City College of Technology (City Tech)—that have worked together on several workforce development projects. The existing partnership already serves the priority target population of out-of-school youth, provides vocational training in the program’s two priority sectors (construction trades and health), combines all the desired program elements (i.e., career planning, work readiness, GED preparation, and post-secondary occupational training), and already encompasses other priorities of importance to the Department of Labor (i.e., green components, collaboration, leveraged resources, support from a broad range of business and community-based organizations, and service within environmental justice zones). Among the CEWD recruits are some of the estimated 12,000 disconnected young adults residing in New York City. The current cohort is comprised of 25 students who are completing the 12-week Food Service Operations program. The current training cohort (as of May 1, 2010) at CEWD saw a comprehensive infusion of social networking in the program. CEWD is building institutional respect for social networking in an educational setting by connecting students, faculty, and external mentors. In this article, the authors first provide a glance at one of these networks,, as it is currently used by CEWD and then explain how social networking sites such as this can provide the right blend of familiarity and professional appearance to put students at ease with its content yet make them professionally accountable for their online persona.”

McKoy, D. L., Stern, D., & Bierbaum, A. H. (2011). Work-based learning through civic engagement. Berkeley, CA: Center for Cities & Schools. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Work-based learning (WBL), an important part of the 1990s ‘School to Work’ movement, is a core component of the Linked Learning strategy which is now shaping efforts to improve secondary education in California and around the nation in cities such as Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia. WBL can include not only classic internships and ‘co-op’ placements but also school-based enterprises and other activities in which students produce goods or provide services for other people. The National Academy Foundation, in collaboration with other organizations involved with Linked Learning, has described a continuum of WBL experiences, including a ‘career practicum’ that complements academic and technical coursework to prepare a student for both college and careers. However, discussions to date have not fully recognized the particular importance of the civic sector as a site for WBL. The civic sector, including public agencies and nonprofit organizations, is vital to both a strong economy and a healthy democracy. The aim of this paper is to explain the idea of WBL in the civic sector and offer an in-depth look at a model of civic WBL—the Y-PLAN—in action. Over the past decade, the award-winning Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now) initiative has been implemented in the Bay Area and across the nation. Y-PLAN bridges the worlds of city planning and public health with civic engagement and academic development to foster on-the-ground change in public places.”

O’Donnell, J., & Kirkner, S. L. (2016). Helping low-income urban youth make the transition to early adulthood: A retrospective study of the YMCA Youth Institute. Afterschool Matters, 23, 18–27. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Low-income urban youth of color often face challenges in their transition to early adulthood. High school out-of-school time (OST) programs that promote positive youth development may help youth to better negotiate this period. However, little research exists on the long-term impact of such programs on young adults. The authors conducted a pilot qualitative study to explore the perspectives of young adults on the effect of their participation in the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) of Greater Long Beach Youth Institute. Respondents indicated that the program positively influenced their life choices and their ability to pursue higher education and enter the workforce. The findings suggest implications for other high school OST programs.”

Schwartz, R. B. (2014). The pursuit of pathways: Combining rigorous academics with career training. American Educator, 38(3), 24–29. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In February 2011 author Robert Schwartz, along with with two colleagues—economist Ronald Ferguson and journalist William Symonds—released a report, ‘Pathways to Prosperity: Meeting the Challenge of Preparing Young Americans for the 21st Century,’ which was published by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. When they first began meeting to discuss the study that led to this report, the group was mindful of the fact that 20 years earlier a commission established by the William T. Grant Foundation had issued a powerful report called ‘The Forgotten Half: Non-College Youth in America.’ As the title suggests, this 1988 report argued that public resources and support were disproportionately focused on young people headed for higher education, and that without a much more robust investment in preparing non-college-bound youth for successful transition into the workforce, these young people would be at significant social and economic risk. The jumping off question for the group’s study was: Is there still a ‘Forgotten Half’ today, and if so, how do they make more progress in serving that population in the next 20 years, than they made in the last 20? At first glance, it seemed unlikely that the researchers would find a persisting ‘forgotten half’ in 2011. When they asked what proportion of young Americans have earned a college degree by their mid-20’s, the answer was that just over half of that population has earned a meaningful postsecondary credential by that age. The conclusion, looking at high school and higher education drop-out data was that the case for investing in developing a set of rigorous career and technical education pathways alongside the strictly academic pathway is even stronger than it was 20 years ago. This article reveals the widening gap between those high school graduates who earn postsecondary credentials and skills and those who do not. Outlined are new models of vocational education demonstrating that it is indeed possible to combine rigorous academics with career training in high skill, high demand fields, thereby significantly reducing the proportion of young people at risk of sustained unemployment at the point of entry into the labor market.”

Treskon, L. (2016). What works for disconnected young people: A scan of the evidence. MDRC Working Paper. New York, NY: MDRC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The purpose of this paper was to conduct a scan of the current state of the evidence regarding what works in helping disconnected young people, defined as the population of young people ages 16 to 24 who are not connected to work or school. The following four main research questions were investigated: (1) What local, state, and federal policies have an impact on disconnected young people? What policies are helping improve services for this population? What policies are barriers to creating effective programs?; (2) What programs have been shown to be effective in serving disconnected young people? What evaluations in process have the potential to contribute to the evidence base?; (3) What is known about the effectiveness of system-level approaches, also called ‘collective impact approaches?’; and (4) Where are there gaps in services or knowledge? What programs or practices should be targeted for further research or expansion? MDRC conducted a literature review of relevant policies and programs. The literature reviewed included writing on impact, quasi-experimental, and implementation studies. MDRC also conducted reviews of numerous websites to learn about current policy trends and evaluations in process. To supplement what was learned from written materials, MDRC interviewed a number of practitioners in the field, including representatives from foundations, coalitions, and research organizations. The main findings included: (1) Policies affecting disconnected young people span a range of systems, including public schools; adult basic and secondary education; and the juvenile justice, foster care, and mental health systems. As a result, services, funding, and research are often uncoordinated and fragmented, though collective impact or system-level approaches are attempting to combat these challenges; (2) Though program impacts may be modest or short-lived, successful programs share some common features. These include: opportunities for paid work and the use of financial incentives; strong links among education, training, and the job market; the use of youth development approaches; comprehensive support services; and support after programs end; (3) Programs share some common implementation challenges, including: outreach and enrollment practices that may limit the populations they serve; difficulties keeping young people engaged in a program long enough to benefit from it; staff turnover; and difficulties addressing young people’s barriers to participation, particularly their lack of transportation and child care; (4) The field’s understanding of what works in serving disconnected young people could advance significantly in the coming years, as more than a dozen evaluations of programs are currently under way, including evaluations of collective impact approaches; and (5) There are gaps in the existing services available: There are not enough programs for young people who are not motivated to reconnect to education or the job market on their own, nor for young people who have low basic skills, especially those who have aged out of the public school system. The areas where there are gaps in services also tend to be areas where there is little evidence regarding what works.”

Wagner, S. (2015). Promising practices in young adult employment: Lessons learned from manufacturing and automotive career pathway programs. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The National Fund’s Young Adult Initiatives aim to test and implement new strategies for targeting America’s young adults and share this information so that employers and workforce development can join forces in investing in the millions of young adults across the nation. This case study focuses on promising findings from automotive and manufacturing programs supported by the Milwaukee Area Workforce Funding Alliance, the Dan River Regional Collaborative, and Workforce Central?. Drawing from these programs, this report considers which program characteristics fostered success and how other cities can design similar programs. The identified primary commonalities in this brief make their approaches to youth employment replicable: (1) workforce development aligned with economic development; (2) industry partnerships engaged in on-the-job training, internships, and apprenticeships; (3) enhanced teaching methods based on new requisite skills and employer demands; and (4) industry partnerships and education and training providers working together to engage students and graduates as participants in an employment talent pipeline.”

Additional Organizations to Consult

Advance CTE –

From the website: “Advance CTE: State Leaders Connecting Learning to Work is the longest-standing national non-profit that represents State Directors and state leaders responsible for secondary, postsecondary and adult Career Technical Education (CTE) across all 50 states and U.S. territories. Advance CTE was formerly known as the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc). Advance CTE’s vision is to support an innovative CTE system that prepares individuals to succeed in education and their careers and poises the United States to flourish in a global, dynamic economy through leadership, advocacy and partnerships. Our mission is to support visionary state leadership, cultivate best practices and speak with a collective voice on national policy to promote academic and technical excellence that ensures a career-ready workforce.”

College and Career Readiness and Success Center –

From the website: “The College and Career Readiness and Success Center (CCRS Center) is dedicated to ensuring all students graduate high school ready for college and career success. The mission of the CCRS Center is to serve Regional Comprehensive Centers in building the capacity of states to effectively implement initiatives for college and career readiness and success. Through technical assistance delivery and supporting resources, the CCRS Center provides customized support that facilitates the continuous design, implementation, and improvement of college and career readiness priorities.”

Jobs for the Future –

From the website: “Jobs for the Future (JFF) is a national nonprofit that builds educational and economic opportunity for underserved populations in the United States. JFF develops innovative programs and public policies that increase college readiness and career success and build a more highly skilled, competitive workforce. With over 30 years of experience, JFF is a recognized national leader in bridging education and work to increase economic mobility and strengthen our economy… To achieve our mission, we focus on three goals:

  1. All lower-income young people graduate high school on a clear path to college completion and career success.
  2. All underprepared students gain the skills they need to earn postsecondary credentials with high labor market value.
  3. All lower-skilled workers obtain the education and training required to move into family-supporting careers with clear paths for advancement.”

National Fund for Workforce Solutions –

From the website: “Our mission is to drive practices, policies, and investments that enable workers to succeed in good jobs, provide employers with a skilled workforce, and build more prosperous communities.”


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • “career readiness” AND “youths”

  • “work-based learning” AND “youth”

Databases and Search Engines

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).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

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

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its 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.