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Success After Graduation: The Importance of Early College and Career Opportunities

Northeast & Islands | April 04, 2023

A teacher helping a student in class

Preparing students for success after high school is a primary goal for the K–12 system. As students approach graduation, they have a variety of options, including enrolling in a two- or four-year postsecondary institution or entering the workforce directly. Yet recent estimates have found that large numbers of students are not college or career ready out of high school.1,2  The lack of preparedness for college and career can have negative effects not only on students,3 but also on employers and businesses.4

REL Northeast & Islands is working with two states—Vermont and Rhode Island—to strengthen their ongoing efforts to jumpstart students' postsecondary opportunities while still in high school. In 2013 Vermont adopted ACT 77, creating Flexible Pathways—an initiative that empowers students to chart their own course on their educational journey by choosing from a variety of pathways, including dual enrollment, career and technical education, and work-based learning opportunities. In Rhode Island, the PrepareRI program ensures students have the chance to gain college and career experiences before graduating from high school by offering opportunities to earn college credits and industry credentials.

What Does it Mean to Be College- and Career-Ready?

Being college- and career-ready means that students are prepared to succeed in college courses or career-oriented training programs without needing extra help.5 Many frameworks and definitions  of college and career readiness exist, such as the ACT Holistic Framework  and Conley's Four Keys. Although these frameworks may use different terms, they generally include a consistent set of skills and competencies in areas such as academics and 21st Century skills, such as information literacy and knowledge of college and career processes.

The Benefits of Early College Opportunities

Early college opportunities in high school, such as Advanced Placement (AP) and dual and concurrent enrollment coursework, can help students succeed in college. These opportunities can serve as a bridge between high school and college, providing students with key skills and knowledge to help them transition from secondary to postsecondary education. They can also offer learning strategies and support systems that prepare students for college coursework while in high school. Furthermore, early college opportunities can improve student outcomes, such as high school graduation rates, and college enrollment, persistence, and completion.6,7

Importantly, when access to early college opportunities is equitable, it can motivate students who may not have previously imagined themselves pursuing college.8 To help more students gain access to early college opportunities—including those from demographic backgrounds that have experienced systemic disparities—the Rhode Island Department of Education supports students in earning tuition-free college credits from the state's public colleges and universities. To ensure more equitable access, students have a variety of options in how they take these courses, including in-person or online, at the higher education institution or at their high school. (Watch this video to learn more.)

The Benefits of Early Career Opportunities

Early career opportunities, like work-based learning (WBL) programs, can help students develop problem solving and career readiness skills.9,10,11,12 These programs can facilitate work readiness,13 increase job-related skills and knowledge, increase school attendance, reduce dropout rates,14,15 and help keep students up to date with current workplace practices and cultures.10,16

WBL programs can also increase students' social capital, which means they have access to resources, connections, and hidden institutional knowledge to help them "climb" the workplace hierarchy through working with skilled adults and older peers.17 Additionally, organizations often rely on referrals when hiring. However, this process often leads to a pattern of consistently hiring people with similar backgrounds.18,19 WBL programs can offer a formal, structured way to connect people from otherwise disparate backgrounds and networks.

To support these efforts, Vermont's Flexible Pathways initiative allows students to apply their knowledge and skills to tasks of personal interest by taking part in both academic and experiential learning opportunities. These opportunities can be virtual or in-person options at various sites across the state.

The Goal Is College and Career Readiness

Although discussions around college and career readiness often separate students into two camps—college-ready or career-ready—Vermont and Rhode Island are preparing students for both college and career paths. These two paths work in tandem. For example, a student may earn college credits that contribute to earning an industry-recognized credential. Or, a work-based learning internship may prepare a student for a career path that leads to a college degree. By preparing students for both paths, they can make more informed decisions about their future and develop skills in key competency and proficiency areas. By supporting early college and career opportunities, Vermont and Rhode Island are working to support better prepared youth who are knowledgeable, capable of success, and have agency in their lives after high school.

Early college and career opportunities can offer great advantages, but they will only fulfill their potential if they are accessible to all students, regardless of background. REL Northeast & Islands is helping Vermont and Rhode Island ensure that strong systems for data collection, analysis, program monitoring, and evaluation are in place to determine if these initiatives are being implemented effectively and that the benefits are equitable for all students. Our team is excited to work with Vermont and Rhode Island to help them ensure that students can access and participate in early college and career opportunities. To learn more about these partnerships, see Vermont Partnership to Strengthen Flexible Pathways for College and Career Success and Rhode Island Partnership to Support Early College Opportunities.


1 ACT. (2019). The condition of college & career readiness 2019.

2 Adams, C. J. (2015). 2015 SAT, ACT scores suggest many students aren't college-ready. Education Week.

3 Campbell, T., & Wescott, J. (2019). Profile of undergraduate students: Attendance, distance and remedial education, degree program and field of study, demographics, financial aid, financial literacy, employment and military status: 2015-16. National Center for Education Statistics Web Tables. U.S. Department of Education.

4 Giffi, C., Dollar, B., Drew, M., McNelly, J., Carrick, G., & Gangula, B. (2015). The skills gap in U.S. manufacturing: 2015 and beyond. Deloitte Development LLC.

5 Conley, D. (2012). A Complete definition of college and career readiness. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center.

6 Edmunds, J. A., Unlu, F., Glennie, E., Bernstein, L., Fesler, L., Furey, J., & Arshavsky, N. (2017). Smoothing the transition to postsecondary education: The impact of the early college model. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 10(2), 297–325.

7 Haxton, C., Song, M., Zeiser, K., Berger, A., Turk-Bicakci, L., Garet, M. S., et al. (2016). Longitudinal findings from the early college high school initiative impact study. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 38(2), 410–430.

8 Ward, D. & Vargas, J. (2012). Using dual enrollment policy to improve college & career readiness: A web tool for decision makers. Jobs for the Future.

9 Cahill, C. (2016). Making work-based learning work. Jobs for the Future.

10 Rosen, R., Visher, M., & Beal, K. (2018) Career and technical education: Current policy, prominent programs, and evidence. MDRC.

11 Kenny, M., Walsh-Blair, L., Blustein, D., Bempechat, J., & Seltzer, J. (2010). Achievement motivation among urban adolescents: Work hope, autonomy support and achievement-related beliefs. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 77(2), 205–212.

12 Linked Learning Alliance (2011). A Work-Based Learning Strategy: The Career Practicum Version 1.0. San Francisco, CA: Author.

13 Halpern, R. (2006). After-School Matters in Chicago: Apprenticeship as a model for youth programming. Youth & Society, 38(2), 203–235.

14 Hughes, K., Bailey, T. & Mechur, M. (2001). School-to-work: Making a difference in education: A Research Report to America. New York: NY: Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University.

15 Theodos, B., Pergamit, M., Hanson, D., Edelstein, S., Daniels, R., & Srini, T. (2017). Pathways after high school. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

16 Ross, M., Kazis, R., Bateman, N., & Stateler, L. (2020). Work-based learning can advance equity and opportunity for America's young people. Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.

17 Flanagan, S. K. & Castine, E. B. (2020). Ready, connected, supported: A framework for youth workforce development and the yes project. Washington: America's Promise Alliance.

18 Granovetter, M. (2018). Getting a job: A study of contacts and careers, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

19 McDonald, S., Michael Gaddis, S., Trimble, L. B., & Hamm, L. (2013). Frontiers of sociological research on networks, work, and inequality. Research in the Sociology of Work24, 1-41.


Joseph Aubele

Joseph Aubele

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