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Career Decision-Making Support for Youth Before the ‘Moment of Choice’

August 21, 2023

At a Glance

Jobs for the Future (JFF) partnered with College Board’s BigFuture team to produce a research-based guide for caring adults, providing insights and resources on how to help young people make decisions about their postsecondary work and learning pathways.

Joel Vargas Vice President
Allison Danielsen, Executive Director, BigFuture Careers and Partnerships, College Board
Ashleigh Goldberg, Director, BigFuture, College Board
Practices & Centers

The blog highlights insights from Navigating Multiple Pathways: A Guide to Supporting Adolescent Career Decision-Making and Choice.

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—and concerns about college affordability are creating uncertainty about the return on investment.

Those are just a few factors that young learners face as they answer 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 senses of agency and purpose that come 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. With that, they can better weigh their options and make informed decisions based on their skills, interests, and goals leading to successful first career moves.

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 publication, Navigating Multiple Pathways: A Guide to Supporting Adolescent Career Decision-Making and Choice, equips families, teachers, program directors, employers, and other adults with research-backed resources and practical advice that help them understand the how, when, and why of career decision-making so they can position students for a lifetime of education and career navigation.

The guide takes a deep dive into the career planning process. From early and ongoing opportunities for learning about potential careers to experiences that build awareness of interests and values and exposure to the array of postsecondary choices, it is all aimed at helping students set goals, weigh options, and plan for long-term success.

In our view, four key truths can bring clarity to 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; the foundational experiences that lead up to it are critical. Career development begins at a very young age as kids first start thinking about what they want to be. Students may not begin to consider career possibilities seriously until later, but their thoughts about the possibilities start to take shape early. 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 are crucial for choosing a strong career fit but can be limited due to factors like household income and social networks. Moreover, wading through options can be especially challenging for adolescents as their attitudes and cognitive abilities rapidly 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 non-college 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 information about the financial prospects pathways offer, guidance from adults, and opportunities to engage in work-based learning and career and technical education courses. BigFuture’s resources highlight multiple pathways to careers students can connect their postsecondary planning with BigFuture’s 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 jump to relevant careers with BigFuture’s Career Quiz that 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 two- and four-year degrees, there are digital badges, certificates, licenses, apprenticeships, and industry-recognized certifications. With that many choices, there’s an urgent need for consistent, quality information about these programs so young people can identify options with the most labor market value. Without a career-planning foundation, young people facing this overload of choices could make decisions without enough 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 forthcoming guide offers a wealth of information and outlines actions to assist the adults helping young people to navigate this complex ecosystem and find their most fulfilling paths—whatever they may be.

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