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 Topics section 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.