From a wide range of education advocacy groups, associations, think tanks, and state and federal policymakers, one now hears a remarkably consistent message about the purpose of public education: The most critical mission for K-12 schools is to prepare students for higher education. Among school reformers, “college readiness” has become a rallying cry.
Why the newfound sense of agreement, after generations of constant wrangling over the mission of the schools? Today’s young people cannot hope to find decent jobs and earn middle class wages, goes the current thinking, unless they have completed at least a couple of years of postsecondary education. And the country as a whole cannot hope to keep up with China, India, and other foreign competitors unless it greatly expands its college-educated workforce.
However, there’s a wide gap between the numbers of young people who aspire to get a college degree and the numbers that actually do so. For example, among students who enrolled for the first time at four-year colleges in 2001, only 56 percent had earned a degree six years later (and rates were considerably lower among minority and low-income students in particular). The evidence suggests that “somewhere between a third and a half of high school graduates leave high school prepared with a reasonable chance to succeed in college,” according to one study. This section of Story Starters examines what “college readiness” means and what the pursuit of this goal means for reporters who cover education.
College Readiness: Why Now?
If it’s true that higher education has become absolutely critical to individual and societal well-being (and, of course, not everybody agrees with that premise), then the need for much greater K-12 achievement and, in turn, much greater college access, enrollment, and degree completion would seem to be so urgent that all other educational priorities pale in comparison. Thus, rather than continuing to ask the schools to pursue too many and often conflicting purposes, the college-readiness benchmark enables reformers to focus their efforts on a single, coherent goal, emphasizing rigorous college preparation for all students.
Skeptics question whether all of this fuss about college readiness is anything more than the latest in a very long list of educational fads that have come and gone. But for enthusiasts, the current round of reforms seems palpably different. This time, they argue, we truly are in the midst of a seismic—and maybe permanent—shift in Americans’ thinking about the purpose of public schools.
The idea that all students (and not just the talented few, or the children of the elite) can and should pursue a rigorous academic course of study has been gathering momentum over the past few decades (particularly since the publication of A Nation at Risk, in 1983). And in 2010, with the publication of the Common Core State Standards, the majority of state policymakers agreed, for the first time in history, to install a genuinely college-preparatory curriculum as the default option for every student.
What is “College Readiness”?
But what does “college readiness” mean, exactly? In one sense, students become “ready” to enroll in college as soon as they acquire a diploma from an accredited high school (or earn a Graduate Equivalency Degree). Of course, numerous critics have noted that the existing credential-based definition of readiness doesn’t ensure that students learn anything in the process. It would be far better, the argument goes, to define readiness as the ability to do college-level work, regardless of whether the students have reached a certain age or acquired a certain number of course credits.
However, short of dropping students into a first-year undergraduate class to see how they perform, colleges have no choice but to rely on some sort of proxy (or “indicator,” as researchers like to say) for readiness, whether it takes the form of a high school diploma, test scores, course transcripts, letters of reference, or a combination of such indicators. Which is to say the meaning of “college readiness” inevitably come around to the questions of how best to measure and certify students’ knowledge and skills.
A growing body of evidence suggests that students’ high school grade point averages (especially in core academic classes) provide perhaps the best information about how well students are likely to do in college courses. But even so, the ability to predict a student’s college success remains weak, with high school GPA taking away only a modest portion of the guesswork. Further, researchers caution that the more weight is placed on high school GPA, the more grade inflation is likely to occur, which would reduce the measure’s usefulness.
Of course, one could ask professors which skills they consider vital for first-year students to have. One major three-year study, involving more than 400 faculty and administrators at 20 universities, found that faculty in all departments tend to view two overarching academic skills—the ability to write well and the ability to select and use appropriate research methods—as critical to students’ success. Additionally, faculty said that some narrower kinds of knowledge and skill are important in their specific subject area classes. English professors, for example, focused on the ability to analyze and interpret literature, and math professors argued that students need a solid grounding in algebra.
Some analyses of student transcripts, test scores, and actual college performance suggest also that it is critical for high school students to complete an intellectually demanding core curriculum, to do well in high-level math and science courses (including Algebra II, at a minimum), and to become adept at reading and making sense of various kinds of sophisticated, complex texts.
Much of the research to date has aimed to identify and measure the specific academic skills (such as reading comprehension, writing, and the ability to solve quadratic equations) that contribute to the success of first-year college students. However, University of Oregon researcher David Conley—one of the leading figures in this field—has found that a variety of other factors (including intellectual habits of mind, such as inquisitiveness; self-management skills, such as budgeting sufficient time for assignments; and knowledge about higher education, such as understanding how to choose an appropriate college) have at least as much influence on college students’ success as do the purely academic factors on which most researchers have focused.
“College and Career Readiness”
And then there is the question of whether “college readiness” and “college and career readiness” are the same thing. The frequent pairing of those terms is fairly ambiguous, however. The call to pursue both kinds of readiness, simultaneously, could be taken to mean that these two distinct goals ought be viewed as equally important. A policymaker might stress college and career readiness in order to persuade the public to support both a rigorous college-prep education and robust workforce preparation programs (such as Career and Technical Education courses of study, Career Academies, or so-called 2+2 programs, which bridge high schools and two-year technical training courses).
Usually, though, the conflation of college and career readiness is meant to reinforce the idea that because of the rise of the global, information-based economy, the skills that young people need to succeed in rewarding careers are, in fact, the same skills that are needed to succeed in college—e.g., the ability to communicate effectively, to work in teams, and to reason logically.
Recently, however, some scholars and organizations have challenged the notion that the demands of college and the workforce are one and the same. For example, the Association for Career and Technical Education has argued that while some of the core academic skills may overlap, careers tend to require much more experience in and understanding of how to apply academic content, as well as various “employability skills” and specific “technical skills” that college-prep curricula rarely emphasize. — Rafael Heller, June 2012
Highlighted journalism and reports for this topic
In this state that spawned test-based accountability in public schools and spearheaded one of the nation’s toughest high school curriculums, lawmakers are now considering a reversal that would cut back both graduation requirements and standardized testing. (The New York Times)Read More »
If waiting in line in the predawn of a January morning for science camp registration sounds crazy, you do not have a New York City child born after 2004. For those children and their parents, especially in the neighborhoods of brownstone Brooklyn, Lower Manhattan and the Upper West Side, not getting into activities, classes, sports teams — and even local schools — has become a way of life. (The New York Times)Read More »
I then describe six striking patterns in graduation rates. They include stagnation over the last three decades of the twentieth century, significant race-, income-, and gender-based gaps, and significant increases in graduation rates over the first decade of the twenty-first century, especially among blacks and Hispanics. ... I find that increases in the nonmonetary costs of completing high school and the increasing availability of the GED credential help to explain stagnation in the face of substantial gaps between the wages of high school graduates and school dropouts. (NBER)Read More »
There are a lot of people in Florida going through what Pepper Harth is going through. Remedial classes in math, reading and writing are seeing a surge of students at Florida’s 28 community and state colleges — schools where all students are welcome as long as they have a high school diploma or G.E.D. From 2004 to 2011, Florida’s remedial education costs for both students and schools ballooned from $118 million to $168 million. (State Impact Florida)Read More »
An age-old doorway into skilled trades and a middle-class life, the apprenticeship is making a comeback, rebounding after all but disappearing in recent decades in the face of a decline in union membership and dwindling demand for skilled labor. And as the economy changes, today's apprenticeships combine the chance for workers not only to master skills while earning a paycheck but to get a college degree at the same time. (The Hechinger Report)Read More »
This blog regularly addresses issues of college readiness, in addition to examining the pathways that lead students to college degrees. (Education Week)Read More »
This special issue sharply focuses on the challenges facing public high school students in Philadelphia, where fewer that 10 percent of graduates earn a college degree within 10 years. Through several articles and editorials, the current angles of the college and career readiness debate are ably dissected. (Philadelphia Public School Notebook)Read More »
Written just as the Common Core Standards Initiative was gaining momentum, this article delves into the efforts to help high schools and colleges better align their expectations regarding what graduates should know and be able to do prior to entering college. (Inside Higher Ed)Read More »
Based on a report from the college-admissions testing giant, this article was one of several that gave momentum to the college readiness debate. (Chronicle of Higher Education)Read More »
SourcesClick to View (opens in new tab)
Reports & Data
Notable research on this topic
CEP’s 11th annual report on state high school exit exams finds that states are embracing higher standards on their exit exams, which means schools and students will feel the impact. The report, based on data collected from state education department personnel in 45 states, discusses the present status of state exit exam policies, the future of these policies as states implement the Common Core State Standards and common assessments, and lessons that can be learned from states’ past experiences with implementing new exit exam policies. (Center on Education Policy)Read More »
Each year, NSSE (pronounced “Nessie”) gathers information from students at four-year colleges and universities nationwide. The annual report produced from this research often yields insights regarding how well prepared students were for entering higher education.Read More »
NCES’ “High School Transcript Study” and “Condition of Education” reports are two of the sources of data the agency gathers regarding college readiness.Read More »
This brief from the Education Writers Association looks at nearly three dozen studies about college readiness to answer four critical questions for journalists:
• What does “college readiness” mean?Read More »
• Is “college ready” the same as “college and career ready”?
• What academic knowledge and skills are most critical to success in college? and
• What other factors—besides being skilled and reading, writing, math and research—are most critical to success in college?
This report “looks at the steps that can be taken to improve college and career readiness and success among underserved populations.” It concludes that “by making sure that all students become ready for college and career—in particular, by ensuring that high school core course offerings are rigorous and that all students are given the opportunity to take additional, higher level coursework beyond core in mathematics and science—some of our country’s seemingly most intransigent social disparities can be reduced.” (ACT)Read More »
This study reaches a startling conclusion: “Based on 2005 ACT-tested high school graduates, it appears that only about half of our nation’s ACT-tested high school students are ready for college-level reading. What’s worse, more students are on track to being ready for college-level reading in eighth and tenth grade than are actually ready by the time they reach twelfth grade.” (ACT)Read More »
This report addresses one of the key issues of discussions regarding college readiness. It asserts that “high school students who plan to enter workforce training programs after they graduate need academic skills similar to those of college-bound students. Findings show that the math and reading skills needed to be ready for success in workforce training programs are comparable to those needed for success in the first year of college.” (ACT)Read More »
From High School to the Future: A First Look at Chicago Public School Graduates’ College Enrollment, College Preparation, and Graduation from Four-Year CollegesApril 2006
This study “paints a discouraging picture of college success for CPS graduates. Despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of seniors state that they expect to graduate from a four-year college, only about 30 percent enroll in a four-year college within a year of graduating high school, and only 35 percent of those who enroll received a bachelor’s degree within six years.” Such statistics are not uncommon nationwide. (Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago)Read More »
Five Questions to Ask
- What percentages of first-year students at the colleges and universities in your region have to take remedial courses? Have these numbers increased or decreased in recent years? Do the students admitted to these colleges come primarily from high schools you also cover?
- Have the high schools you cover developed “dual enrollment” programs with the nearby colleges and universities, enabling high school students to take college courses for credit? If so, what percentages of students enroll in the program and how have they fared? If not, why?
- Are there any “Career Academies” in your region? If so, which career fields do they emphasize and how successful have they been at preparing students for college or the world of work?
- Do the high schools in your region prepare students for the non-academic aspects of entering college, such as pursuing financial aid/scholarships and developing time management skills? If so, how? Are there any college access programs in your region that provide services such as these?
- What percentages of high school students in your region enroll in college directly after graduation? How many of them graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six (or 10) years? Have these numbers been increasing or declining?
Achieve was founded in 1996 by a group of governors and business leaders. Since that time, it “has developed a range of advocacy resources that aim to address common concerns with college and career readiness.” Their American Diploma Project and Future Ready Project are two initiatives through which the organization tries to assist states in developing policies and practices that help high school students prepare for life after graduation.
ACT is the standardized testing giant that has been one of the leading voices in discussions about how best to prepare high school students for college. Their research asserting that the skills students need to prepare for the workforce (“career ready”) are largely the same as those they will need to succeed in college (“college ready”) has been particularly influential.
The University of Oregon's Educational Policy Improvement Center was founded in 2002 by David Conley, one of the leading researchers on the subject of college and career readiness. EPIC initiates and compiles “research and tools to empower states, districts, schools, and teachers to prepare students for success beyond high school.”
The national nonprofit organization Jobs For the Future operates a number of programs aimed at helping to prepare high school students for college, such as the Early College High School Initiative, the University Park Campus School Initiative, and Early College High School Week.
Formerly known as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, MDRC is “a nonprofit, nonpartisan education and social policy organization dedicated to learning what works to improve programs and policies that affect the poor.” Their research regarding career academies has been a pivotal part of defining what “career readiness” can mean.
Suggest a Change
If you'd like to suggest an addition or change to this section, send an email to EWA Project Director Kenneth Terrell.