What Does “College Readiness” Mean?

Few school systems’ mission and vision statements fail to include the phrase “college and career readiness.” Who could possibly be against it? But while there is nearly universal agreement that students should leave high school ready to either pursue additional education or enter a career, there is wide disagreement on what “college readiness” means.


It’s a critical question, because more than 40 percent of students enter college with the requirement to take remedial courses that cost the same college tuition, but that do not count toward the completion of their degree. That may be why so many students who enter college never finish it. They thought they were “college ready,” but more than 70 percent of community college students never finish, and more than 40 percent of students entering a four-year college never finish. They had enough knowledge and skills enough to finish high school, apply for college, get accepted, and perhaps even secure some financial aid. But they were far from “college ready.”


New research from the Center for Policy Research in Education (CPRE) Knowledge Hub podcast casts some light on this. Scholars from the University of Washington who have researched the issue extensively noticed that students, parents, colleges, and teachers in the K-12 system have wildly different perception of what it takes to be ready for college. Because teachers are often the most influential source of information about what the college experience is, the UW scholars interviewed teachers, focusing on “early college” high schools – that is, schools that were dedicated to offering college credits and sending 100 percent of their students to post-secondary education. If any group of faculty members had “college readiness” clearly defined, it should be them. That’s not what the researchers found. Here is a sample of the advice that teachers offered – often stridently – to their college-bound students. The following notes include what the UW researchers found along with some of the nuggets I’ve heard along the trail:


·       “It’s all about group work – you need to learn to collaborate.”

·       “There’s no more group work – you are on your own and need to work alone.”

·       “Social skills, including the need to advocate for yourself, are crucial.”

·       “Soft skills don’t matter, especially in the sciences.”

·       “Writing is paramount -- that’s all you do in college.”

·       “Writing is less important than online collaboration and speaking in class.”

·       “You’ll have graded homework every week, and late work is never accepted.”

·       “Your grade is one final project that will go through many iterations, and nobody grades homework.”

·       “You can get the lectures on the web – huge lecture halls are a waste of time.”

·       “You’d better go to every lecture in person, because there are always things in those sessions that are not in books or online, and that will be on the test.”


What the researchers found was not malice or ignorance by the purveyors of this wildly contradictory advice, but rather that the vast majority of advice was based on one of three sources: the teacher’s own college experience, often decades ago; the experience of the teacher’s own children; or the experience of the children of friends. What was not included? Picking up the phone and actually talking to today’s college professors. When a piece of advice from anyone over the age of 21 begins with “You know, when I was in college…,” it should be considered a bit of interesting piece of archeology, but not necessarily conclusive evidence of contemporary practices on college campuses.


So what are today’s high school students to do? There are some timeless truths: Keep a calendar and assignment notebook, ask for help, be willing to admit what you don’t know. My previous post on what colleges need now might be of interest [read here]. But most importantly, just go to a college and spend some time with students and professors. I am dismayed when I see the prospective students of our many Boston-area universities dutifully following the campus guide from one building to another, with special interest in the student union, the size of the dorm rooms, and the quality of cafeteria food. I wish they would stop the tour and just go to a class. Look at the interaction between professors and students. Look at the level of questioning by the professor and the degree of interaction. Talk to some first-year students and ask, “What do you know now that you wish you would have known a year ago?” That wisdom may be far more useful than the confusing mash of advice that reflects what colleges were in previous eras. If you’d like to listen to the CPRE blog and hear the UW Researchers, here is the link to their podcast.

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