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Low Learner Career Guidance Uptake Rates – What Gives?

Youth unemployment is at an all-time high, with the latest study from Stats SA showing a 63.3% unemployment rate amongst 15 to 24-year olds. Yet, many career guidance programs exist to help learners and recent graduates continue their learning journeys, increasing the odds of finding suitable employment. Programs like Bridge by Gradesmatch, a partner of the Trevor Foundation, work tirelessly to advise learners on potential career paths and help them move on to tertiary education.

Be that as it may, according to a recent study, “tertiary institutions in South Africa are experiencing alarming undergraduate drop-out rates. The first-year university drop-out rate ranges from 50% to 60%. It has been reported that 52% of learners made their career selection after Grade 12, while 34% made concrete career decisions during registration at higher education institutions.”

Bringing it closer to home, from our Khulani school partners, of 500 qualifying students, only 101 learners took up career guidance with Gradesmatch. Of these, 86 applied to institutions of higher learning and 34 received provisional offers. That begs the question, why are so many young people passing on these opportunities? Why are they choosing to drop out or forgo career guidance assistance when it can help them build successful careers? Unfortunately, the answer is both complex and possibly rooted in long-standing habits within underresourced communities.

The Challenges That Affect Learners Today

Let’s look at some of the common challenges and barriers to entry facing today’s youth regarding further education and employment.

Families In Need Of Financial Support

The current shape of the labour market in South Africa has had a distinct impact on our family structures, particularly in low-income areas. In many households, children live with grandparents or extended family, while their biological parents travel great distances for work in metropolitan areas. As a family grows, the children are more likely to live with relatives other than their parents. Many households with four or more children are currently classified as “extended” families.

Due to the sizes and needs of larger low-income families, teenage learners may drop out of school to find employment. The money they earn then goes to help support and feed their families.

The Fear of the Unknown

Some learners may not be convinced that the investment in career guidance programs will secure a brighter future. Even with a degree to their name, many graduates still find it challenging to find employment. According to the Quarterly Labour Force Survey findings, over 40% of graduates under 24 years old aren’t employed.

For many high schoolers, those are discouraging odds. With the need to earn an income and establish a living deeply ingrained, many don’t see the value of spending an additional two to five years studying and incurring debt. “It’s better to work now,” seems to be the overarching thought.

Not Enough Encouragement from School Leadership

For most high schools, the goal is to achieve high pass rates, as mandated by the Department of Basic Education. The mandate of the Department of Higher Education and Tertiary, on the other hand, is to support learners who have enrolled into institutions of higher learning. While both directives are equally important, unfortunately, ensuring that learners successfully transition from matric to higher education falls through the cracks. 

Schools that embrace career guidance programs often share a common trait – a principal, educators and school governing body committed to measuring success beyond matric results. Unfortunately, many schools still believe that this is simply not their problem, and as a result, they do not put enough emphasis on taking up career guidance if learners do not express interest.

Delayed Parental Involvement

According to Unathi September, Executive Director and Co-founder at Gradesmatch,

“Often, many parents become involved only after their children express an interest in pursuing post-schooling education. Late parental intervention sometimes introduces contradictory perspectives about higher education, delaying or prohibiting learners from pursuing tertiary education. Some parents express a strong aversion to letting their children leave their home provinces, making it impossible for us to assist them in seizing good opportunities unless parents specifically request assistance.

Some delays may be financial in nature, with parents uncertain about their ability to finance their children’s educational objectives even with governmental assistance. For example, in the NSFAS application, certain family facts are concealed from learners; nonetheless, they are revealed during the application process. At this point, parents may be torn between wanting to be involved and needing to share information that might be considered confidential to the child. Even when transportation funds are provided for activities that need parental involvement, there is an underlying hesitancy from parents that prevents learners from receiving the support and encouragement they require.

Complacency From Learners

There may be various additional reasons why takeup rates are so low. For example, many learners often decide to wait until their results are out before committing to apply for further education. This adoption of a “wait and see” mentality might only be addressed through a shift in traditional thinking.

The Impact of COVID-19

COVID has had a significant impact on schools and attendance. The uncertainty of the pandemic has led to over 750,000 learners dropping out of school, with many being unsure if they’ll ever return. The reduction in school days also means that many students lost the equivalent of a year’s worth of study, creating further learner losses – and, according to the statistical odds, the longer these students remain out of school, the less likely they are ever to return.

According to the Zero Dropout Campaign,

“Before the pandemic, schooling was already characterised by too little learning, high levels of inequality, and regular disruption. Now, more than ever, we need a national, comprehensive response to school dropout that includes a national catch-up strategy attuned to the diverse needs of learners.

We need to meet learners at their level and respond to their needs. Where possible, plans to recover lost learning, through accelerated catch-up programmes, should be tailored to learners’ needs, rather than their age or grade.”

A Support Ecosystem

With the need for support higher than ever, career guidance programs are undoubtedly critical. However, it takes a village to raise a child. Principals, parents, and the broader society similarly need to actively encourage learners about the value of school, further education, and career opportunities. 

This process needs to start early in a learner’s school career, with particular attention at points where guidance is vital. For example, Grade 9 is a critical year for every learner. It’s a milestone  to decide on subjects which have a direct impact on their future career. Thankfully, through partners such as Gradesmatch, learners can make realistic and informed subject selection choices. They learn to understand their strengths and weaknesses and then match them with their skills and interests to get the best suitable career choice. 


While challenges are vast, the overarching goal is to provide learners with the necessary support to mitigate them. There’s a distinct need to reinforce the value of continuous education, provide encouragement throughout the process, and provide personal guidance when required. And while it may still take several years to overcome the current barriers and preconceptions, our responsibility is to continue to tackle them, one school at a time.


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2 Responses

  1. Indeed, the path out of poverty is education. My wife and I founded and run a non-profit called REACH! for SA. Changing the world one pre-school at a time. Our mission is similar, only we are focused on the first 5 years. Is it possible to be put in touch with someone at your foundation to share ideas, visions, perspectives? Thank you
    Ralph Pooler
    ralphp@reachforsa. org

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