Career Decision Making Support for Youth Before the ”Moment of Choice”

College Board’s BigFuture team has partnered with Jobs for the Future to produce a research-based guide for caring adults. The guide provides insights and resources to help young people make decisions about their postsecondary work and learning pathways. 

For many young people, adolescence is marked by a shared question: What’s next? 

It’s a question that should inspire excitement. Yet too often, students don’t have the information, experiences, or advice they need to be aware of or effectively evaluate the many possibilities.

This country’s complex and ever-changing education and workforce landscape presents both opportunities and confounding challenges for young people contemplating their futures. Rapid advances in artificial intelligence and technologies are transforming career fields. Employers are rethinking the qualifications they seek—in some cases eliminating degree requirements. Besides this, concerns about college affordability are creating uncertainty about the return on investment. 

Those are just a few factors young learners face when they ask that critical question: What’s next? What’s the “right” path after high school for me? Enter the workforce? Go to college? Enroll in a training program? Enlist in the military? Take a gap year? Some combination of these?

Those questions are leading Generation Z to reevaluate their post-high-school options. Many are thinking of enrolling in community college or building job skills in short-term training programs, apprenticeships, or other forms of work-based learning. But there’s not enough support to help students navigate the paths that don’t include a four-year degree. Early results of surveys of more than 1,000 U.S. high school students conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of College Board show that non-collegebound students are less likely than collegebound students to say they are hopeful, motivated, excited, and confident about exploring their futures.

This means our systems fail to serve all students equally by not providing more guidance about a greater variety of pathways to good jobs and careers.

Meeting a Need for Information, Resources, and Advice  

College Board’s BigFuture and Jobs for the Future (JFF) want all students to have the sense of agency and purpose that comes with feeling hopeful, motivated, excited, and confident. An essential step is to ensure that high school students and their families receive a timely and abundant flow of information and resources. When they have that, they can make informed decisions (and successful career moves) based on their skills, interests, and goals.

Our organizations have joined a growing field of educators, policymakers, employers, and others working to expand the supports and resources available to everyone involved in these decisions. Our guide, Navigating Multiple Pathways (August 2023), equips families, teachers, program directors, employers, and other adults with research-backed resources and practical advice. The guide can help them understand the how, when, and why of career decision making. They, in turn, can position students for a lifetime of education and career navigation.

The guide takes a deep dive into the career planning process, helping students set goals, weigh options, and plan for long-term success. To accomplish this, the guide includes chances to learn about potential careers, ways to discover interests and values, and exposure to an array of postsecondary choices.

Four key truths about the process:

  1. Career planning isn’t a linear process, and it takes time. When it comes to career decisions, it’s not just the “moment of choice” that matters. Foundational experiences that lead up to it are critical. Career development begins when kids first start thinking about what they want to be. Tools can help students begin to understand their options sooner. For instance, BigFuture is a free online platform used by more than 15 million students looking to take their first steps after high school. It lets them control what they explore as they navigate high-quality information and options. Early insights about the platform’s effectiveness confirm the resources are increasing hope, motivation, and excitement among students about their future. 
  2. Career decisions are personal, not just analytical. Students’ personal circumstances influence their decision making processes. Access to information and real-world experiences crucial for choosing a strong career fit can be limited by factors like household income and social networks. Moreover, wading through options can be challenging for adolescents as their attitudes and cognitive abilities change. When adults better understand these factors, they can better support young people’s career decisions. 
  3. High school students want more ways to explore careers and the full range of postsecondary pathways. Only 20% of students in the Morning Consult survey had heard much information about noncollege pathways. And students who haven't started exploring their post-high-school options said they would be more motivated to start planning if they had access to guidance from adults, opportunities to engage in work-based learning and career and technical education courses, and information about the financial prospects that pathways offer. BigFuture resources highlight multiple pathways to careers. Students can connect their postsecondary planning with the BigFuture Career Search, which offers 1,000 career profiles, including detailed job descriptions, the knowledge and skills required for the jobs, median salary, and projected job growth. Students can also zero in on relevant careers with the BigFuture Career Quiz, which matches their interests and skills to 30 options.  
  4. The number and diversity of learning pathways are expanding, creating both opportunity and risk. Nearly 1 million postsecondary education and training programs exist nationwide, each issuing their own credentials—and that number is expected to grow quickly. Beyond 2-year and 4-year degrees, there are digital badges, certificates, licenses, apprenticeships, and industry-recognized certifications. Because there are so many choices, there’s an urgent need for consistent, quality information about these programs. Young people need to identify options with the most labor market value. Without a career-planning foundation, young people face an overload of choices and are liable to make decisions based on insufficient information. 

Adults who care for children or care about them have an important role. They can provide young people with information and support in the months (and years) leading up to the “moment of choice.” Our guide offers not only valuable post-high-school work and education information. It also lists steps adults can take to help young people to find their most fulfilling paths—whatever they may be.

About BigFuture

BigFuture is a free online resource that helps students take the right first step after high school. We help you plan for college, pay for college, and explore careers. Whether you’re interested in a four-year university, community college, or career training, BigFuture has what you need to start planning your future, your way.     

About Jobs for the Future

Jobs for the Future (JFF) drives transformation of the U.S. education and workforce systems to achieve equitable economic advancement for all. www.jff.or