13 The Big Picture: College and Your Career

Sonji Nicholas

What you’ll learn to do: describe both college and career readiness and the value of a college education

a job fair

Stay focused, go after your dreams, and keep moving toward your goals.

—L L Cool J, musician

By the end of this section, you will be able to describe college and career readiness and examine the value, both financial and otherwise, of a college education. You will list key strategies for selecting a college major and identify the relationship between college majors and career paths. In addition, you will identify sources for learning more about specific majors and related careers.

Am I College and Career Ready?

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe college and career readiness

Knowing what you truly want to gain from your college experience is the first step toward achieving it. But reaching your goals doesn’t necessarily mean you are college and/or career ready.

What does it mean to be ready for college or a career? In general, you are a college- and career-ready student if you have gained the necessary knowledge, skills, and professional behaviors to achieve at least one of the following:

  • Earn a certificate or degree in college (college-ready)
  • Participate in career training (college-ready)
  • Enter the workplace and succeed (career-ready)

For instance, if you are studying for a skilled trade license in college, or perhaps pursuing a bachelor’s degree, you are college-ready if you have the reading, writing, mathematics, social, and thinking skills to qualify for and succeed in the academic program of your choice.

Similarly, you are career-ready if you have the necessary knowledge and technical skills needed to be employed in your desired field. For example, if you have completed a nursing program at a community college and possess the required licensing, you have the knowledge and skills needed to secure an entry-level nursing position.

Ultimately, college and career readiness demands students know more than just content, but demonstrate that they know how to learn and build upon that content to solve problems. They must develop versatile communication skills, work collaboratively and work competitively in a school or work environment. Ensuring that you possess both the academic and technical know-how necessary for a career beyond the classroom is a great step toward succeeding on whatever path you choose.

—Washington, DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education

College and Career Readiness in Your State

So where are you on the readiness scale? You can find out how your state measures your readiness. Visit the Interactive State Map at the College and Career Readiness and Success Center of the American Institutes for Research website. The map leads you to definitions of college and career readiness for your state. It also provides metrics to measure readiness. And it provides information about programs and structures to help you and educators. You can compare states across one or more categories on the CCRSC website.

Try It


Student Voices on Being College and Career Ready

In the following video, a number of high school students and recent graduates reflect on college and career readiness and their futures. As you view the video, think about how your short-term goals can connect with longer-range ambitions. You might also reflect on how your deepening experiences in college can lead to achieving your longer-term goals. After all, each new experience in your life builds upon the last. You may never truly arrive at a destination if your life is an ongoing journey.

You can view the transcript for “Student Voices: What Does it Mean to be College and Career Ready?” here (opens in new window).

The Value of College

Learning Outcomes

  • Examine the value, both financial and otherwise, of a college education

Harvard campus with green lawns, trees, and brick buildings

What is the Purpose of Higher Education?

The oldest institution of higher learning in the United States is widely acknowledged to be Harvard University. It was established in 1636 with the aim of providing instruction in arts and sciences to qualify students for employment. In the 1779 Constitution of Massachusetts, submitted by Samuel Adams, John Adams, and James Bowdoin to the full Massachusetts Convention, the following language was used:

Art. I.—Whereas our wise and pious ancestors, so early as the year one thousand six hundred and thirty six, laid the foundation of Harvard-College, in which University many persons of great eminence have, by the blessing of GOD, been initiated in those arts and sciences, which qualified them for public employments, both in Church and State.

Is “public employment” preparation still the goal of higher education institutions today? Indeed, it is certainly one of the many goals! College is also an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually. In fact, in a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, Americans were split on their perceptions of the main purpose of a college education:

  • 47 percent of those surveyed said the purpose of college is to teach work-related skills.
  • 39 percent said it is to help a student grow personally and intellectually.
  • 12 percent said the time spent at college should be dedicated to both pursuits—teaching work-related skills and helping students grow personally and intellectually.

These statistics are understandable in light of the great reach and scope of higher education institutions. Today, there are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, offering every manner of education and training to students.

What Value Can Higher Education Bring to You?

Broaden Your Perspective and Thinking

The books you read and classes you take while in college will not only help you learn new information, but they will help you think in a different way. Whatever major you choose, you’ll find yourself having new intellectual experiences and approaching learning in new ways. This broadened perspective is something you’ll be able to take with you wherever you go in life.

Open Your Mind to Possibilities

Professional opportunities are evolving every day. You may already have an idea of what you’re going to school for before you even sign up for your first class, but while you’re earning your degree, you’ll learn more and more about the different professional opportunities available to you. You might learn more about different career paths through your school’s career center, or through your peers who are likely to all have different experiences than you do. Take advantage of your time in school to really open your mind to the possibilities in the work world.

Widen Your Social Network

Going to school may bring you in contact with people from all over the country and the globe. Whether your peers are from halfway across the world, or if they went to the same high school as you did, you have the chance to broaden your social network by meeting and spending time with your peers while you’re pursuing your degree. Take time to really enjoy this opportunity keeping in mind that your social network can really help you in developing your career.

Learn Essential Skills

Whether you’re learning skills specific to your intended field of work or broader skills that can be applied widely to many areas of your life, you will acquire a wealth of skills in college as you work towards your degree.

Try It


Employers Value Higher Education

What do employers think about the value of a college education? What skills do employers seek in their workforce? In 2014, Hart Research Associates conducted a survey on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The survey revealed that the majority of employers believe that having field-specific knowledge as well as a broad range of knowledge and skills is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success.

Employers also said that when they hire, they place the greatest value on skills and knowledge that cut across all majors. The learning outcomes they rate as most important include written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.[1]

Is college worth it?

There are many different ways to think about the value a college education can bring to your life. Check out this video of John Green’s perspective on the topic.

Employment Rates and Salary Prospects

Let’s consider the following statistics on employment rates and salaries for college graduates. College does make a big difference!

  • In 2020, adults ages twenty-five to thirty-four with a bachelor’s degree or higher had a higher employment rate (eighty-six percent) than young adults with just some college (seventy-eight percent). [2]
  • The employment rate for young adults with just some college (seventy-eight percent) was higher than the rate for those who had completed high school (sixty-nine percent).[3]
  • The employment rate for those who completed high school (sixty-nine percent) was higher than the employment rate for young adults who had not finished high school (fifty-seven percent).[4]
  • Employment rates were generally higher for males than females at each level of educational attainment in 2020. [5]
  • Over the course of a forty-year working life, the typical college graduate earns an estimated $550,000 more than the typical high school graduate. [6]
  • The median gap in annual earnings between a high school and college graduate as reported by the US Census Bureau in 2010 is $19,550.[7]

Chart: Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment. The middle shows a range of degree levels, highest to lowest. On the left, in red, the unemployment rate in 2014 (%) is shown in a bar graph; on the right, in green, Median weekly earnings in 2014 ($) is shown. From top down: Doctoral degree: 2.1% unemployment, $1591 earnings. Professional degree: 1.9%, $1639. Master's degree: 2.8%, $1326. Bachelor's degree: 3.5%, $1101. Associate's degree: 4.5%, $792. Some college, no degree: 6.0%, 741. High school diploma: 6.0%, $668. Less than a high school diploma: 9%, $488. All workers: 5% unemployment, $839 median weekly earnings. Note: data are for persons age 25 and over. Earnings are for full-time wage and salary workers. Source: Current Population Survey, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor.

Differences in Earnings between States

All in all, college imparts a wide and deep range of benefits. The short video Why College, below, shows that with a college degree you are more likely to

  • have a higher salary.
  • have and keep a job.
  • get a pension plan.
  • be satisfied with your job.
  • feel your job is important.
  • have health insurance.

Note that the video has no narration. You can view the transcript for “Why College?” here (opens in new window).


career-ready: the status of one who has gained the necessary knowledge, skills, and professional behaviors to enter the workplace and succeed



  1. "Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success." Hart Research Associates, 20 Jan. 2015, https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2015employerstudentsurvey.pdf. Accessed 31 Mar. 2016.
  2. "Employment and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment." National Center for Education Statistics, May 2021, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cbc.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Cohn, D'Vera. "Lifetime Earnings of College Graduates." Pew Research Center, 16 May 2011, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2011/05/16/lifetime-earnings-of-college-graduates/.
  7. "Is College Worth It?" Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS, 2011, https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2011/05/15/is-college-worth-it/. Accessed 31 Mar. 2016.


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The Big Picture: College and Your Career Copyright © 2023 by Sonji Nicholas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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