College Readiness: A Worthy Goal, but is it Working for Students?

College Readiness: A Worthy Goal, but is it Working for Students?

Making sure all students are ready for college is a frequently mentioned goal for many educators and policy-makers. But what does college readiness really mean, and how do teachers actually know whether a student is ready for college? Asking such questions may be a good way to help students, teachers, administrators, and college staff not just identify college readiness as a goal but work toward it in a concrete manner. Taking a more comprehensive, transparent approach to college readiness might be especially important for students from marginalized communities, including those who have disabilities or live in poverty.

That’s because the four-year college graduation rate for students who are low-income is much lower than that for wealthier students. Indeed, the globally focused news source Voice of America noted that according to a National Center for Education Statistics report, just “16 percent of low-income college students graduate”—a rate much lower than the comparative 60 percent for students who come to college with more resources. Based on a longitudinal study, the NCES report started in 2002 and was released in 2015 with the purpose of documenting the postsecondary ambitions and experiences of a cohort of 15,000 college sophomores. (An interactive post on The New York Times website also highlighted the correlation between family income and college access, as well as college graduation rates.) Simply put, the higher the income, the stronger the likelihood of a student attending and graduating from college.

This disparity in four-year graduation rates carries over to students with disabilities as well; in 2017, a Hechinger Report article noted that two-thirds of college students with disabilities do not graduate within four years. Meanwhile, for those in two-year postsecondary programs, graduation rates hovered just above 40 percent. As reporters Jackie Mader and Sarah Butrymowicz wrote, these are “dismal outcomes” either way. So, if college readiness is a key goal for today’s K–12 systems, what can teachers and school communities do to ensure that students from a variety of backgrounds make it to college and are well prepared to realize their potential? Here are some places to start.


Literacy skills

It seems obvious to point out that students need to be able to read well in order to succeed in college, yet many education researchers and practitioners have raised the alarm about a “crisis” in adolescent literacy that has far-reaching consequences. On the adolescent literacy-focused website, researcher Rafael Heller argued that “relatively few of the nation’s secondary students are getting the kind of intensive, ongoing literacy instruction they need, either to catch up in the basics or to move beyond them.” Heller also noted that the demand for strong literacy skills is high, meaning further investment in and focus on literacy skills and instruction are warranted.

As other researchers have acknowledged, students who reach high school are “often skilled enough at reading what’s familiar and immediately engaging to them, such as young adult fiction or sports, but the cognitive demands for comprehending high school biology, chemistry, math, and social studies are much greater.” Thus, the time to start preparing students well begins before they near the end of their high school career. In an piece titled “Mastering Literacy Skills for College Readiness,” contributor Rick Allen offered a few key strategies for teachers and emphasized the importance of engaging students more fully through reflection and summarization while tackling a more challenging text. Another important tip: Work at “unveiling hidden structures” in complex reading material to help students grasp academic language.

Soft skills

The Hechinger Report, which detailed the low graduation rate for students with disabilities, focused on soft skills as a clear deficit area. Soft skills often form the foundation of success for students and can include such things as knowing how or when to “organize a study group,” along with other communication, self-advocacy, and organizational skills. Students with disabilities or learning challenges such as attention deficit disorders may require explicit instruction in these skills before heading off to college, but although current special education laws require that students be given a “transition plan” for life after high school, some sources have pointed out that the nurturing of soft skills is often not included in such plans.

There are many reasons to help students attain soft skills, including to enhance their social, emotional, communication, and academic abilities. Teachers can impart such competencies by incorporating role play, emotional awareness, and relationship building exercises into both their lessons and students’ individualized education plans (IEPs). Some school districts, as outlined in the Hechinger Report article, are working to explicitly include these lessons in secondary schools, especially for students with special education needs.


Early warning systems for struggling students

Another college readiness strategy that schools may want to consider involves using “early warning systems”—data-centric approaches designed to catch students long before they fall. The University of Chicago’s Center for Data Science and Public Policy has devoted research muscle to the creation of such a system under the umbrella of using “Data Science for Social Good,” with a goal to identify and assist students who are at risk or otherwise likely to fail or drop out of high school. The researchers, who focused on students in the Montgomery County Public Schools district, evaluated data on the students’ middle and high school years.

By identifying students who are failing or have repeated a grade, researchers and school staff have the opportunity to intervene early and with specific support, thereby improving the likelihood of keeping students on track and positioned for high school and college success. The hope is to “better understand the needs of individual students, groups of students, or the school as a whole,” in the words of researchers Mindee O’Cummings and Susan Bowles Therriault. With support from the American Institutes on Research, O’Cummings and Bowles Therriault wrote a paper in 2015 intended to serve as a guide to teachers, administrators, and school districts interested in employing an early warning system to better support students.

The ultimate goal? To turn college readiness into more than just a hopeful slogan through establishing a deeper awareness of students’ needs and skills.

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