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
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
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
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
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
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
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.