The term college-ready is generally applied to (1) students who are considered to be equipped with the knowledge and skills deemed essential for success in university, college, and community-college programs, or (2) the kinds of educational programs and learning opportunities that lead to improved preparation for these two- and four-year collegiate programs. The college-ready concept is also related to career-ready, equity, high expectations, and rigor.
Calls for placing a greater emphasis on “college readiness” in public education are, generally speaking, a response to the perception that most public schools, particularly public high schools, pay insufficient attention to the postsecondary success of students. In other words, “college-ready” has become a touchstone in a larger debate about what public schools should be teaching and what the purpose of public education should be. For example: Is the purpose of public education to get students to pass a test or to earn a high school diploma? Or is the purpose to provide a challenging course of study that prepares all students for success in higher education and modern careers? The college-ready concept is typically motivated by the belief that all high school graduates should be equipped with the knowledge, skills, and aptitudes they will need to pursue continued education after graduation, and that a failure to adequately prepare adolescents for collegiate learning denies unprepared students the option to pursue a collegiate education, should they choose to do so, either immediately after graduation or later in life.
Advocates of college readiness and the related concept of “college and career readiness” would contend that the purpose of public education is to look beyond test scores and graduation rates to the knowledge, skills, work habits, and character traits students actually need to succeed in adult life. A high school diploma, in this view, should certify readiness for success in university, college, and community-college programs, rather than merely the completion of secondary school. High remediation rates for first-year college students—especially in community colleges, where enrollments in non-credit-bearing “developmental courses” are extremely high nationally—have provided some evidence to support the need for a greater emphasis on college readiness in public schools. Since remedial or developmental college courses typically carry the same tuition costs as credit-bearing college courses, advocates of college readiness may also claim that insufficient academic preparation is both an economic issue and an equity issue because students who graduate from a public high school, but who are not prepared for college-level learning, are forced to pay more in tuition costs if they want to earn a college degree. In addition, students who enroll in college-level developmental courses are less likely, on average, to persist in their collegiate education and earn a degree.
The increased national emphasis on college readiness has led states, foundations, and educational organizations to develop, or at least consider, new ways of evaluating and monitoring college preparedness. While measures such as standardized-test scores, or the types of credits earned and courses taken in high school, can provide some indication of college readiness, accurately predicting student success in postsecondary-degree programs remains an elusive goal—in part because collegiate success is often determined by factors that are not academic in nature or within the control of public schools, such as social and emotional preparedness, a family’s ability to afford college, or parental support for collegiate aspirations, to name just a few potentially complicating factors. Consequently, college-readiness metrics are often seen as proxy indicators rather than reliably predictive measures.
Some educators are wary of the “college-ready” label, and of calls to make college readiness a universal goal of public education, viewing it as a potentially biased approach that could undervalue other post-graduation options, such as military careers, industry-certification programs, or career paths that do not necessarily require a college degree. In this view, students who are not aspiring to complete a college education may end up disadvantaged or alienated. Wariness of the college-ready concept may stem, at least in part, from the perception that public schools promoting college readiness and collegiate aspirations may end up “pushing” or “forcing” students to consider college, even though a collegiate education may not be the best option for some students. In offering a course of study that is largely focused on academic preparation for college, other kinds of preparation—such as career preparation or the practical skills students need to get a job after graduation—may be overlooked or undervalued.
Other educators argue, however, that the college-ready concept is needed to promote greater equity in public education, since public schools should be providing the highest-quality education possible so that students graduate from high school with the widest array of educational and career options possible. Failing to provide an education that culminates in college preparation, in this view, is tantamount to denying students the option to pursue a collegiate education either immediately after graduation or later on in life.
The concept of college readiness also intersects with ongoing debates about whether there is any real distinction between “career-ready” and “college-ready,” given that students will need, or should be taught, the same skills and knowledge regardless of their future aspirations or post-graduation plans. For some educators, not only is the “debate” over career-ready and college-ready seen as misleading or unnecessarily confusing, but it may create artificial distinctions that lead to the same educational inequities that concepts such as career-ready and college-ready were created to overturn—i.e., that college-ready programs will end up providing a high-quality education to students, while career-ready programs will provide a lower-quality or less-valuable education. The general argument is that all students should receive the best possible education regardless of what they may plan to do after graduating from high school, and that any attempt to create different educational tracks for “college-bound students” and “career-bound students” will, inevitably, lead to inequities and uneven educational quality. Since it is impossible to accurately predict any individual student’s future educational choices or career path (which may change dramatically from early adolescence to adulthood), schools should encourage the highest possible aspirations for all students.
Some national surveys of college educators and employers have provided evidence that, when it comes to the knowledge and skills that both college instructors and prospective employers are looking for, career readiness and college readiness may be largely indistinguishable. These surveys have found that incoming college students and younger employees not only have similar knowledge and skill deficits, but that both college educators and employers are looking for similar knowledge, skills, work habits, and aptitudes, including the broad array of skills often called “21st century skills.” Advocates of erasing the distinction between career-ready and college-ready may recommend or use the phrase “college and career ready” as an alternative.