The high school graduation rate has been creeping up in the U.S., hitting all-time highs in recent years. Each summer, about 3 million students graduate and, en masse, enter the real world. But once they get there, many ask, “Now what?”

Despite the rising graduation rate, fewer students are going to college, even though its economic benefit is increasing. Many who do enroll drop out before finishing. Meanwhile, the employment rate for recent college graduates is still much lower than it was before the Great Recession.

There are many reasons why young people struggle to complete college or to find work, but students emphasize the lack of preparation they receive. More than half the respondents in a survey of high school students said that they don’t believe their schools are sufficiently preparing them for college or for a career—though those were the goals of nearly everyone.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor of the oft-maligned No Child Left Behind act, aims to better equip students with the skills they will need in either higher education or the workforce. The law emphasizes flexibility and innovation in education, giving states and schools some freedom in figuring out how to address problems. But what specific opportunities and requirements are embedded in the law when it comes to college and career readiness?

Fewer students are going to college

In the spring, we took a look at the broader accountability systems required under ESSA and the kinds of innovative educational approaches that might be possible when it goes into effect. This time we’re looking at how the law sets states up to prepare students for life after graduation.

One explicit reference to college and career is in ESSA’s requirements of districts. In order to receive federal funding, districts and other Local Education Agencies have to submit comprehensive plans to states for their approval. These plans must include “strategies to facilitate effective transitions for students … from high school to postsecondary education.” These strategies can include, for example, partnerships with higher education institutions and local employers, or career counseling.

One of the most significant ways states can encourage college and career readiness under ESSA is through their mandated accountability systems that track schools’ and students’ progress. As they did under NCLB, they must include scores from annual testing in math and reading, but ESSA also requires states to monitor additional measures to paint a more comprehensive picture of quality and improvement. States have some flexibility in selecting indicators, which ESSA says can include evidence-based measures of “postsecondary readiness.”

The Learning Policy Institute (LPI), an education think tank, has proposed indicators that determine college or career readiness. The researchers suggest tracking the portion of students who complete college-level coursework, career technical education sequences, or internships, or the portion who receive certificates or digital badges that are recognized by universities or businesses.

Some states encourage career academies and high school internships

LPI has chronicled the efforts of the 51st State Working Group, a cohort of 11 states trying out creative educational approaches and sharing best practices. Their ideas provide a window into what might be possible for all states under ESSA.

South Carolina, for example, tracks participation in AP and dual enrollment programs, as well as the number of students in career programs. Virginia and Kentucky both track the number of students who earn industry-recognized credentials.

It can be a challenge for states to devise accountability measures that reflect both college and career preparation.

“Combining college and career readiness indicators can be tricky as students have different goals for their steps immediately after high school, and different pathways to achieve those goals,” writes LPI. In some cases, states measure whether all students have at least pursued one goal or the other.

Some of these states go further, investing in career pathways or other immersive programs. These concepts are not explicitly encouraged or funded under ESSA, but because the new law has relaxed the focus on standardized testing and performance in specific subjects, it gives states room for such innovative efforts.

What do existing programs look like?

In South Carolina, the Career and Technology Education program gives students in grades 7-12 the chance to participate in sequences that prepare them for specific careers. The state provides a framework to districts and schools for designing programs that launch students into the industry of their choice, be it business, agriculture, or architecture. The sequences integrate academics with hands-on technical instruction and field experience.

In Kentucky, students in grades 6-12 receive college and career advising in conjunction with individualized learning plans. Other states promote career academies or have learning competency goals related to skills needed in adulthood like time management, cooperation, and initiative.

There is some federal funding for college and career preparation built into ESSA as well. The law maintains the 21st Century Community Learning Center program, which predates NCLB. The program provides academic enrichment opportunities to low-income kids outside of school hours, at public schools or sometimes at private schools or community centers. Included in the array of services these programs can provide are career and technical education, internships, and “other ties to an in-demand industry.”

College and career readiness requires more than strong schools

States receive funding for the 21st CCLC programs based on their share of Title I funds for low-income students, and then award grants to local applicants. More than $1 billion is awarded each year, but competition is heavy, and only a small sliver of eligible students has access to a center, according to the Afterschool Alliance. The program is the only federal funding source exclusively dedicated to before- or after-school hours, and is supplemented by contributions from partner organizations.

Learning advocates cheered ESSA’s preservation of the 21st CCLC program because college and career readiness requires more than just strong schools. Community partnerships and opportunities for learning in a variety of settings are critical. Students will only be prepared for success in the world outside the school walls if they have exposure to it early on.