The Potential of Career and College Readiness and Exploration in Afterschool Programs

Betsy Brand

Executive Director, American Youth Policy Forum

Andrew Valent

Program Associate, American Youth Policy Forum

A high school diploma used to be enough to get by in the job market, but this is no longer the case. A Georgetown University study found that the percentage of jobs in the United States that require some form of postsecondary education will reach a projected 63% by 2018, up from 28% in the early 1970s (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). This trend is being driven by the increasingly complex global labor market that requires more advanced levels of math, science, and language arts proficiency. 

Tony Wagner from Harvard University argues that in addition to higher levels of basic skills, students need certain 21st century skills for success in a knowledge economy, such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, adaptability, imagination, and entrepreneurism. Yet he laments that these skills are noticeably underemphasized in instruction and assessments within American schools and that youth have few opportunities to develop such skills in school settings 
(Wagner, 2010).

High schools are increasingly focused on ramping up student performance in basic academic skills—certainly a laudable goal. Many schools are not able, however, to provide opportunities during the school day for all students to learn about college and career options or to develop vital 21st century skills. Students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds can more easily access learning opportunities through networks of family, friends, and other options, but economically disadvantaged youth often have little access to these opportunities and services. Many business and civic groups were pleased when President Obama announced a national goal of having the largest share of college graduates in the world by 2020; consequently, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that all young people are prepared for success, in both college 
and careers. Afterschool and summer learning programs can help us meet this goal.

Many afterschool and summer learning programs expose youth to the importance of college by taking them on visits to college campuses, working with students and families to identify prospective colleges, providing assistance in the college application process, helping families navigate the financial assistance jungle, and providing encouragement and support to students who do not see themselves as college material. These activities, which many high schools do not have the time and resources to provide, are key to helping students become college ready and make a successful transition into college (Bowles & Brand, 2009; College Track, 2012b; Herrera, Linden, Arbreton, & Grossman, 2011; Seftor, Mamun, & Schirm, 2009) .

Other afterschool and summer learning programs provide youth with opportunities to learn about careers, participate in internships or work experiences, participate in community service projects, or earn stipends for work. Employers are often key partners with afterschool programs in providing work-based learning or apprenticeship-type experiences. These activities are important for youth who have little exposure to careers or who are unfamiliar with the workplace, again, since activities of this nature are rarely scheduled into the regular school day (Afterschol Alliance, 2009; Bowles & Brand, 2009; Halpern, 2008; Hirsch, Hedges, Stawicki, & Mekinda, 2011; Moran, n.d.; Pearson & Fabiano, 2006).

The evidence base strongly supports deploying afterschool and summer programs and partnerships to develop students’ readiness skills for enrolling in post-secondary education and for joining the workforce

Afterschool and summer learning programs also provide engaging learning opportunities for youth by connecting learning to careers, college, and other future plans. In many classrooms, students do not learn how to apply their knowledge (Casner-Lotto, 2006). They learn content from a theoretical standpoint, divorced from the real world and rarely placed in the context of how the information or knowledge can be used to solve actual problems. In contrast, many afterschool and summer learning programs excel in providing opportunities for youth to develop these types of skills and abilities by encouraging them to work in teams, design and implement complex projects rooted in real-world challenges, undertake community service, and serve in internships or apprenticeships (Afterschool Alliance, 2009; Bruschi & Clewell, 2008; Chi, Snow, Goldstein, Lee, & Chung, 2010). 

The evidence base strongly supports deploying afterschool and summer programs and partnerships to develop students’ readiness skills for enrolling in post-secondary education and for joining the workforce; yet many education, community, and higher education leaders have not taken the necessary steps to tap the significant potential of such a strategy. The specific examples shown below clearly demonstrate what is possible in real-life situations and communities.

Examples That Show What Is Possible

What follows are descriptions of several exemplary afterschool and summer learning programs that provide youth with opportunities to learn about postsecondary education and careers and develop employability skills. The programs profiled below include Upward Bound Math-Science, Citizens Schools, and Project Exploration. 

Upward Bound Math-Science

Upward Bound Math-Science is a college access program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education TRIO program, that has an afterschool and summer component. The program was designed to provide disadvantaged high school students with skills and experiences that prepare them for success in a 4-year college and help them succeed in a math or science career field. Grants are given to 2- and 4-year colleges and universities to provide programs during the school year and summer. School-year programs include supplemental academic instruction and enrichment activities such as faculty-assisted experiments, seminars with outside speakers, and field trips. The 6-week summer program includes an intensive focus on math and science instruction and exposure to life in college, including residency in college dorms. All programs include activities such as preparation for college entrance exams, information on postsecondary opportunities, and assistance completing college applications and understanding financial aid opportunities. A 2007 evaluation of Upward Bound Math-Science showed improved high school grades in math and science among participants and a greater likelihood of majoring in math or science and completing a 4-year degree in math or science (Olsen et al., 2007). The latest evaluation showed that all participants benefited from an increased likelihood of earning a postsecondary certificate or license. Among participants with the lowest initial educational expectations, it found an increased likelihood of receiving Advanced Placement honors, or core academic credits in high school and greater chances of enrolling in and completing some type of postsecondary program (Seftor et al., 2009).

Citizen Schools

Citizen Schools, funded in part with 21st Century Community Learning Centers funds and based in Boston, partners with public middle schools to provide structured expanded learning opportunities for educational enrichment, career exposure, and high school and college preparation to students in grades 6–8 during and after school. The program incorporates academic support, apprenticeships with adult volunteers in a variety of fields, and a community explorations curriculum that brings the community into the classroom and the classroom to the community. Students participate in experiential learning projects, referred to as apprenticeships. These learning experiences are led by volunteer community members and employers, who set goals, focus on academic support, and teach leadership skills. Students build 21st century skills, such as communication, collaboration, data analysis, effective reasoning, and problem solving, and they create and present a final product to share what they have learned with families, teachers, public officials, community members, and business leaders. Citizen Schools also takes eighth graders on college visits, where students visit classes, attend social events, and engage in other guided activities that provide a concrete awareness of college life. An evaluation of Citizen Schools found increased levels of student engagement and achievement, higher attendance and course pass rates, lower suspension rates, a positive impact on English and math course grades, and an increased propensity to select a rigorous high school (Pearson & Fabiano, 2006). 

Project Exploration

Project Exploration is a nonprofit organization that provides science education to underrepresented groups, particularly females and minorities. The Project provides over 300 Chicago Public School youth access to free afterschool and summer science programs that spark an interest in science, motivate youth to pursue science-related careers, and ensure that they are equipped for such careers. Participants benefit from hands-on programming, authentic fieldwork, leadership development, and long-term relationships with educators through ongoing mentorships. Programs include a 3-week summer fieldwork immersion program where participants take classes on anatomy, geology, and paleontology and conclude with a week-long paleontology field expedition. Students also can fulfill high school community service graduation requirements by serving as docents for science exhibits at local museums. Project Exploration also offers science programs for girls where science exploration is combined with leadership development through hands-on science activities and interactions with female science role models. A 10-year retrospective review found that Project Exploration participants benefited from higher high school graduation rates, higher 4-year college enrollment and completion rates, a greater likelihood of majoring in a science field, and greater employment rates in science-related professions. The study also found that participants had an increased science capacity and that meaningful engagement in a community of practice with strong relationships supported peer learning and helped students envision careers in science (Chi et al., 2010). 

These afterschool and summer learning programs help young people think about their futures, learn some of the skills needed to be successful in postsecondary education and the workplace, and draw connections between classroom learning and the real world through structured learning experiences. All of them rely on strong partnerships among schools, community-based organizations, colleges, and/or employers that enhance and strengthen their programs. These partnerships also help youth connect with caring adults who can provide advice and support about career and college pathways. 

Recommendations and Conclusion

Afterschool and summer learning programs can and should help youth be prepared for college and careers, but many do not explicitly include it as an emphasis. Here are some recommendations along with examples of programs addressing the issues. 

First, afterschool and summer learning programs can intentionally focus on helping youth explore, set goals, and prepare for postsecondary education. One program that helps youth explore and prepare for postsecondary education is College Track, a national nonprofit that partners with high schools and local community-based organizations and offers college preparatory activities to almost 1,200 underserved youth afterschool and during the summer. Activities include college tours, academic advising, enrichment workshops, ACT and SAT preparation, summer writing institutes focused on the college application process, and guidance on college entrance and financial aid (College Track, 2012a).

Second, programs can create partnerships with employers to help youth learn about and experience careers first-hand through work-based learning, apprenticeships, or internships. The Youth Astronomy Apprenticeship Program, through collaboration between the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Timothy Smith Network, and local afterschool providers in the Boston area, fosters science learning among urban teenage high school students and prepares them for professional competitive opportunities. In the program, equal effort is put into pursuing science learning for academic enrichment and in stressing the link between employable skills and the skills developed in science and other professional fields. During the summer apprenticeship program, youth participate in paid positions, working with scientists and science educators from MIT and Harvard. An evaluation showed that youth who participated in these programs increased their commitment to science and demonstrated improved leadership and a greater understanding of astronomy and scientific concepts (Norland, Foutz, & Krabill, 2009). 

Third, programs can develop engaging, relevant, and age-appropriate programming for youth that connects their academic studies with hands-on, project-based, experiential, and collaborative work, set in the context of real-world challenges. The Build San Francisco Institute, a partnership between San Francisco Unified School District, the nonprofit Architectural Foundation of San Francisco, and several business and community partners, began 15 years ago as a 6-week summer mentorship program for students interested in design, construction, architecture, and engineering. This collaboration then grew into an integral partnership with San Francisco Unified School District that offers a half-day high school program, complete with fully accredited courses in architectural design and urban studies, mentorships with two dozen major San Francisco firms and civic agencies, and up to 15 units of high school credit (approved for CA State University admission) per semester (Architectural Foundation of San 
Francisco, n.d.). 

Fourth, programs can ensure that youth have opportunities to develop 21st century skills. In New York City and Washington, DC, Global Kids focuses on digital literacy and civic participation through in-school, out-of-school, and online work so that youth can succeed in school, participate effectively in the democratic process, and achieve leadership in their communities and on the global stage. The nonprofit program receives funds from and partners with several corporations, foundations, and government institutions. Thousands of students study global issues, develop local connections, and work in peer education, social action, digital media, and service-learning. Through its various activities, Global Kids has an explicit focus on engaging students in 21st century skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and cross-cultural communication (Global Kids, n.d.). 

These recommendations and examples make clear that afterschool and summer learning programs can develop strong partnerships with K–16 education institutions, employers, museums, and community-based and youth-serving organizations in order to create stronger connections to college and careers. Given their prevalence in communities across the country and their ability to be flexible and responsive to community needs, afterschool and summer learning programs are well positioned to provide youth, particularly underserved youth, with opportunities to be college and career ready. If America is going to be more competitive in the future, we need to capitalize more aggressively on these opportunities.

For More Information 

For Tony Wagner’s recommendations on essential skills that are currently needed in classrooms see:

For more information on Upward Bound Math-Science see

For information on how Citizen Schools aligns resources among multiple partners see

For information on Project Exploration’s youth programs, resources, and links to various projects see


Afterschool Alliance. (2009). Afterschool innovations in brief: Focusing on older youth. Retrieved from

Architectural Foundation of San Francisco. (n.d.). Build San Francisco Institute. Retrieved from

Bowles, A., & Brand, B. (2009). Learning around the clock: Benefits of expanded learning opportunities for older youth. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Bruschi, B., & Clewell, B. C. (2008). Final summative evaluation report: Girls Incorporated Thinking SMART program. Indianapolis, IN: Girls Incorporated National Resource Center.

Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., & Strohl, J. (2010). Help wanted: Projections of jobs and education requirements through 2018. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. 

Casner-Lotto, J. (2006). Are they really ready to work? Employers’ perspectives on the basic knowledge and applied skills of new entrants to the 21st century U.S. workforce. Retrieved from

Chi, B., Snow, J., Goldstein, D., Lee, S., & Chung, J. (2010). Project Exploration: 10-year retrospective program evaluation summative report. Berkeley, CA: University of California Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science. 

College Track. (2012a). About. Retrieved from

College Track. (2012b). Results. Retrieved from

Global Kids. (n.d.) About Global Kids. Retrieved from

Halpern, R. (2008). The means to grow up: Reinventing apprenticeship as a developmental support in adolescence. New York, NY: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. 

Herrera, C., Linden, L., Arbreton, A., & Grossman, J. (2011). Testing the impact of Higher Achievement’s year-round out-of-school-time program on academic outcomes. Retrieved from

Hirsch, B. J., Hedges, L. V., Stawicki, J., & Mekinda, M. A. (2011). After-school programs for high school students: An evaluation of After School Matters [Technical report]. Retrieved from

Moran, N. (n.d.). Evaluation report: October 2006–August 2007. Washington, DC: Urban Alliance Foundation.

Norland, E., Foutz, S., & Krabill, M. (2009). Youth astronomy apprenticeship: An initiative to promote science learning among urban youth and their communities—Summative evaluation. Retrieved from

Olsen, R., Seftor, N., Silva, T., Myers, D., DesRoches, D., & Young, J. (2007). Upward Bound Math-Science: Program description and interim impact estimates. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education website:

Pearson, L., & Fabiano, L. (2006). Preparing students in the middle grades to succeed in high school: Findings from Phase IV of the Citizen Schools Evaluation. Washington, DC: Policy Studies Associates.

Seftor, N., Mamun, A., & Schirm, A. (2009). The impacts of regular Upward Bound on postsecondary outcomes 7–9 years after scheduled high school graduation: Final report. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

Wagner, T. (2010). The global achievement gap: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need—and what we can do about it. New York, NY: Basic Books.