THE BLOG
12/04/2014 06:16 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2015

Why Career Planning Belongs at the White House College Opportunity Summit

It isn't every day I head to the White House and share ideas with the President and First Lady, but on Thursday I'm attending the White House Summit on College Opportunity, discussing ways to strengthen the college-to-career pipeline for low-income students.

By including career readiness organizations like mine, The Opportunity Network, the Obama administration is moving the conversation in the right direction. The administration recognizes that academic achievement is clearly linked to career readiness. The share of jobs that require postsecondary education has doubled over the last 40 years, as jobs require more skills. This means that, not only do students need to continue their educations after high school, they also need to start thinking about their careers while they are still in high school so that they can evaluate options, choose the best match and maximize their college opportunities. The more engaged students are in career planning, the more likely they are to do well academically and to complete college.

High school students need to be exposed to a range of careers to understand their options, set career goals and identify the postsecondary requirements to achieve those goals. Too often, these conversations don't begin until college, and by then it is too late for many students.

High school guidance counselors need to ensure that students understand the link between college and career before they begin filling out applications so they choose colleges that fit their needs. It's much harder to become an engineer if you don't apply to an engineering school or to become a music teacher in a school that doesn't offer music or education.

Students who start college with a sense of purpose are also better prepared to compete for summer internships. In a recent study, business executives said that internships and work experience outweigh college majors or GPAs when they are deciding whom to hire.

In addition to their core curricula, high schools should also teach "soft skills" in areas like self-advocacy and building networks of people with common interests. While these are traditionally considered part of career training, they are as important for college as knowing how to take notes or study for exams. Every college student needs to learn how to write a professional-caliber email, conduct himself well in a meeting with a professor and work effectively on team projects and study groups.

Learning to build networks and social capital is an essential lesson for all students, and it can start in high school. Eighty percent of Americans find their jobs through people they know. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen summed it up in an interview about the opportunity gap: "The meritocracy works if you know the right people, if you have access to the networks. How do venture capitalists make decisions? We get referrals based on people we already know."

My organization, The Opportunity Network, has developed a robust curriculum that combines college counseling with career exposure, professional etiquette and skills to build networks. I've seen firsthand that this approach amplifies the impact of college counseling and college preparation. One hundred percent of the low-income students in our program graduate from college, and 85 percent start career-track jobs or gain graduate school admission within six months of college completion.

As part of this summit, I will commit to training front line staff and guidance counselors at schools and college access organizations nationwide in The Opportunity Network's holistic curriculum that combines college preparation, college transition and success and career readiness. Our staff is eager to help schools and community organizations increase their rates of college matriculation and college completion, and to help young people prepare for careers.

I've been a fan of the President and First Lady's initiatives to expand college access and success since they were launched. I'm grateful for this opportunity and can't wait to help make these initiatives succeed.