“College Readiness” versus “Ready for College”

“College readiness.” One one hand, the meaning of the term is clear: it’s “the combination of skills, knowledge, and habits of mind necessary to fully participate in college-level courses (courses at the 100 level and above) to completion.” But as the phrase has become so deeply intertwined with political rhetoric and education policy, its meaning (and the implications) are worth examining. In this article, Lee Skallerup Bessette looks at the gulf between “college readiness” and being “ready for college” and asks what K-12 school leaders can help to address the latter, not simply the former.

We have lots of definitions of “college readiness”; here are the ACT’s definitions as well as the Common Core’s in Language Arts (as for math, it’s simply “all the math” they outline). There should be a baseline for college admittance; as one new book argues, standards are important to help facilitate student success. We know that those who require remedial classes in college are less likely to graduate, thus we must work to ensure that any student who wished to go to college have the necessary skills to succeed.

The truth is, however, because of “big data,” we already know who is most likely, ultimately, to be successful in college and who isn’t. College ready for many admissions offices means not only their GPA and ACT scores, but also their socio-economic status, their ethnicity, and other demographic information.

You know, all the things that you, as educators, can’t control for.

New Pressures All Around

Test scores and GPAs don’t tell the whole story

Unfortunately, what kind of student you serve plays a significant role in whether or not your students graduate college ready, or even ready for college. It’s a vicious cycle; students who get into the best schools tend to be more likely to graduate. But that has as much to do with who their parents are and how they are prepared to handle college life, not to mention what kind of safety net they have waiting for them if things go wrong. At a prestigious institution, it’s called “a Dean’s vacation” while at most other schools, it’s called dropping out.

Students are also facing unprecedented financial pressures while in college, with many students working multiple jobs and still accumulating debt. These jobs often take precedence over studying, especially when the student is also providing support to family back home. Students may spend less time studying but certainly more time working. Mom or Dad isn’t there to bail the student out; the students are increasingly the ones bailing their families out.

Are there exceptions? Sure, of course. Test scores and GPAs don’t tell the whole story. All they really tell us is who is potentially ready to do college-level work, and even then, GPAs can be deceiving if the classes that fed the GPA weren’t rigorous or appropriate for college preparation. The real key is who is willing to do the work and who will actually be able to do the work. Are the students ready for college?

What Kind of College?

Are students ready to speak up for themselves?

Now the question becomes one of “fit” depending on what kind of college the students have selected to attend. If they are going to a small, private liberal arts institution, are they ready to live away from home? Are they prepared for the small-town, relatively isolated experience most of these kinds of institutions offer? If they are working-class (or even middle-class), are they prepared to interact with students from much higher socio-economic means? If they are minority students, are they prepared to attend a school where there often isn’t much diversity? Do they understand the level of debt they may be incurring in order to attend the institution, or even how they are paying for their schooling?  But are they also ready to take advantage of the close relationships they can develop with their professors in a smaller setting and get involved in campus life?

If they are attending a large, R1 institution, are they prepared for the size and scope of the place? Are they ready for 400+ other students in their introductory classes? To be largely taught by TAs and adjuncts, at least for the first two years? Can they handle the level of diversity that exists on many of these campuses? The level of distractions that exist on at all these large schools? But, through the maze of people and courses and activities and opportunities, will they be prepared to participate in some of the most cutting-edge research that is happening today?

Closer to home, if the student is attending one of the many regional, teaching-focused institutions, are they prepared to invest the time and energy necessary in order to succeed, with one foot often still at home? With tightening budgets, are the students prepared to fight for the resources they need to succeed? Do they even know what those resources are? Are they ready to speak up for themselves and to articulate what they want to people who can help them achieve their goals? Do they even know what those goals are?

Finally (although certainly not exhaustively), if the student is attending a community college, are they prepared to be in classes with a wide diversity of ages, ethnicities, and life experiences? Will they feel invested in a campus that doesn’t often feel like a campus at all, filled often with part-time and commuter students? Will they know enough to choose a program that leads down a path to a meaningful certification and/or a path into college?

Whose Job Is It? 

High schools weren’t traditionally meant to prepare the majority of students for college

These are all difficult questions, ones that aren’t the responsibility of high schools alone to answer. We often talk about “mission creep” in higher education, getting away from what you do best, or what your mission is, into areas that you don’t do well, or can’t do well. I think that it’s worth pausing and thinking about “mission creep” from the K-12 perspective.

High schools weren’t traditionally meant to prepare the majority of students for college. And really, it’s unclear if they ever did that particularly well; again, most students who went to college were from well-to-do families and thus the preparation really was about integrating into socio-economic norms. As post-secondary school expanded, and the economy contracted, not to mention the rapid shift in demographics, the pressures of both our sets of institutions increased dramatically.

Doing more with less is something we have become accustomed to, and so it is easy to point fingers and say, YOU should be doing MORE for these students to prepare them/help them persist/get them to graduate.

What Can Be Done?

Most of the challenges students will face in college are that they are responsible for their own learning

But there are things we can do, and probably the most important one is to collaborate. Does a community college or university in your area offer dual-credit or other programs designed to get students’ ahead or at least more comfortable with the idea of post-secondary education? But perhaps a more important question is if there opportunities are limited to  “the best and the brightest” rather than all students who might be interested. These “early college” options have also been suggested as a way to combat the dreaded senioritis.

Another strategy is to just be informed. There are resources out there that deal with issues of transition, for both the students and the parents. One of the biggest gaps for non-traditional and minority students especially is the lack of cultural capital, understanding how college works. Work with university graduates from the community (even if they have left it) to speak to students about their experiences openly and honestly. Have multiple conversations around the issues with both students and parents: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Not to scare them away, but to help them understand the process and manage expectations going into college.

Finally, something you can control: design your curriculum to be engaging, challenging, and allows students to take ownership of their educations. If you noticed, most of the challenges students will face in college are that they are responsible for their own learning. How responsible are your students for their own learning as they move through your schools? Rather than coming to me on the first day of class, asking simply, what do I need to do to pass this class, I would rather they tell me, here is what I want to learn.

Further questions

  • How is your school or district working to ensure not just college readiness, but that students are ready for college?
  • Are there possibilities for collaborating with local or nearby post-secondary institutions to increase preparedness?
  • Are you observing and recording what the best schools/teachers/students do in order to make the transition successfully to college?

Image credits: darkday

Will Richardson

Co-founder of Modernlearners.com and Change School. Author, speaker, instigator, surfcaster, husband, and father to two amazing young adults.

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