The Promise of College-Career Pathways

What Is a College-Career Pathway and a Pathway System?

While there is no universally accepted definition of a College-Career Pathway (CCP), NC3T defines it as “an educational program in school – a sequence of inter-connected academic and elective classes (not just CTE classes) — that helps students make a clear connection to college and career opportunities.” (Note: In some settings, this educational program might be called a “career academy,” ”Linked Learning,” or something else.)

Critical elements of the College-Career Pathway include:


  • An academic component that prepares students to pursue college or university studies as well as two year and certification programs.
  • A foundation built on a common theme of learning (either a career or academic area of emphasis) over three to four years of high school.
  • Solid integration of approved CTE programs. Pathways are not limited to traditional CTE focus areas; they can emphasize other areas such as liberal arts, science, math, or fine and performing arts.
  • An emphasis on applying the knowledge of each theme and exploring careers and industries related to each theme.
  • Cross-curricular strategies to embed state adopted English and math standards throughout. They also bring more real-world applications into core academic classes.
  • A technology strategy to maximize delivery of content and connect to real-world applications.Opportunities for customization, if local program offerings do not meet the interests of some students.

NC3T defines a Pathways System as a coordinated collection of College-Career Pathways, connected with meaningful learning opportunities outside of the school walls and with substantive employer involvement. A successful system touches every student, helping them learn about career opportunities and participate in a pathway plan of study during their high school years.

Many communities are now coming together to create innovative approaches to education, particularly at the high school level, to engage students in learning through college-career pathways. These pathways help students make a clear connection between college and career opportunities.

Similar models have been showing very positive results throughout the U.S.:

Pathways Systems, often implemented as Career Academies, have been growing in thousands of high schools since the 1990s. These “schools within a school” help students prepare for college by engaging in a rigorous academic classes and career exploration classes and work-based learning.

  • Career Academies have been implemented in all high schools in Nashville, Tennessee, a high poverty district. Over the last five years, graduation rates in Nashville have grown from 68 percent to 83 percent.
  • In Pensacola, Florida, another district with extensive use of career academies, the average graduation rate is 71.2 percent, while students enrolled in career academies have an 84.1 percent graduation rate.
  • California Partnership Academies, an initiative focused on high poverty students in California, show similar results with high graduation rates and high rates of college readiness.

In terms of education reform, pathways initiatives are one of a very few that have “moved the needle,” improving the education experience and measured outcomes for students across the country.

For more on this subject, see this video, in which Hans Meeder, president of NC3T, introduces the pathways concept and points to evidence showing its impact.

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