Today’s students face a world influenced by a global economy, technological advances and rapid changes in the way we share information, communicate and conduct business. It has never been more critical to help them build the knowledge, skills, behaviors and awareness necessary to succeed in college and beyond. Improving postsecondary success for all our citizens, but most urgently for low-income and minority students, is vital to our nation’s economic and social health, and global competitiveness.
Yet, college remediation and completion rates suggest that many students leave high school without the skills and knowledge required to succeed in postsecondary education. (media. collegeboard. com/Feb. 26,2013) College today means much more than just pursuing a four- year degree at a university. Being “college-ready” means being prepared for any postsecondary education or training experience, including study at two- and four-year institutions leading to a postsecondary credential (i.e. a certificate, license, Associates or Bachelor’s degree).
Being ready for college means that a high school graduate has the English and mathematics knowledge and skills necessary to qualify for and succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses without the need for remedial coursework. Although students have ambitious educational and career aspirations, many lack basic information about how to fulfill their postsecondary goals.
Many students and their parents fail to plan because they do not have the essential information resources, personal support networks, and structured programs they need to effectively perform educational and postsecondary planning activities (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000; Hrabowski et al. , 1998; McDonough, 1997). Some students and their parents have a vague understanding or hold misconceptions about high school course requirements for college admission, the importance of teachers in college planning, and college tuition costs (Choy, Horn, Nunez, & Chen, 2000; Hrabowski, Maton, Greene, & Greif, 2002; Schneider & Stevenson, 1999;
Venezia et al., 2003). (www. aypf. org/ Feb. 27,2013) There are multiple steps that students and their parents can take to successfully plan for postsecondary education and become college ready. These steps build upon one another to help students make the transition from secondary to postsecondary education and training (McDonough, 1997).
The early stages of postsecondary planning can include, but are not limited to: 1) Considering postsecondary education, 2) Deciding to attend college, 3) Maintaining good grades, 4) Gathering information about the college admissions process (including college admissions tests), 5) Discussing educational and career goals with counselors, teachers, and parents, 6) Obtaining information about colleges and academic programs, 7) Obtaining information about financial aid opportunities, and 8) Exploring college major and career interests. (www. act. org/Feb. 27,2013)
Schools should provide the tools, information, and resources to guide students and their parents through the postsecondary planning process and make successful educational transitions.
And it is important for schools to initiate this planning process by the middle school years. This early educational planning can guide students’ experiences in middle and high school and help them make informed educational decisions. A key aspect of early educational planning involves the exploration of educational and work options. Students have many postsecondary choices, including two-year colleges, certificate programs, four-year colleges, the military, and employment.
They often begin taking steps to make their educational goals a reality by taking college preparatory courses, maintaining good grades in these courses, participating in extracurricular activities, and learning about ways to finance postsecondary education (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000). And they may regularly engage in conversations about their futures with their friends, parents, teachers, and counselors (McDonough, 1997). College Costs. Most parents believe that a college education is the best investment they can make for their children (Miller, 1997).
Developing a plan to pay college costs is an essential part of early educational planning, often leading students and parents to discuss college costs, research various colleges and their academic programs, and explore financial aid opportunities (Hossler, Schmit, & Vesper, 1999). However, many parents neglect or are unable to save money, or do not have a plan to pay for college when their children are young. These families may perceive that they cannot afford college. Many students and parents also lack knowledge and information about college costs and options of paying for postsecondary education.
Even among high school juniors and seniors who plan to attend college, few have accurate information about college costs. Schools can help students develop educational goals by providing career and postsecondary planning information, beginning in the middle school. Counselors, teachers, principals, and other school personnel often influence students’ educational goals and postsecondary planning. Throughout their school years, most students take standardized achievement tests and complete career interest measures to assess academic performance and assist in postsecondary planning.
Schools can integrate test information into the course selection process to show students how test results align with classroom performance and what academic skills they need to develop through future courses. Counselors and teachers can review assessment results with students and parents to guide course selection and placement in the proper course level to fit the students’ academic preparation and achievement (Wimberly, 2003). Low-income parents and students often report that they do not receive adequate information about financial aid.
They often lack knowledge about the application process and what financial aid is available to them. Consequently, low-income parents and students may not develop a college finance plan (Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000). Many high achieving low-income students are more likely to enter the military than college because of failing to develop a plan to pay for college costs (Choy, 2000). Popular media stories about rising tuition costs and budget cuts at colleges and universities may compound the issue by making it seem that a college education is unaffordable.
This, in turn, may cause many students and their families not to seek college finance information. Students often enter their senior year of high school believing they are ready for college because they have completed required courses. This leads to the development of particularly bad study habits and skills during the senior year (Conley, 2001; Kirst, 2000; National Commission on the High School Senior Year, 2001). In this fashion, the lack of a coherent, developmentally sequenced program of study also contributes to deficiencies in other key areas, including study skills and time management.
In fact, it is difficult to imagine a preparation program that emphasizes time management and study skills but does not sequence challenge levels that develop these skills progressively from year to year. What does it mean to be college ready? Previous research suggests that being ready for college means having the academic content knowledge and skills needed to pass college level courses (Conley 2007; Roderick, Nagaoka & Coca 2009), including course grades, standardized test scores, and the degree of rigor of courses taken.
Additional research suggests that motivational or non-cognitive factors can be important determinants of success in college (Dweck, Walton & Cohen 2011). These factors include tenacity: maintaining a positive attitude toward learning and being able to persist when the going gets tough. Being college ready also encompasses having “college knowledge” that includes knowing how to apply to college and for financial aid (Conley 2007).
Because college is truly different from high school, college readiness is fundamentally different than high school competence. Students fresh out of high school may think a college course is very much like a similarly named high school class taken previously only to find out that expectations are fundamentally different The college instructor is more likely to emphasize a series of key thinking skills that students, for the most part, do not develop extensively in high school.
They expect students to make inferences, interpret results, analyze conflicting explanations of phenomena, support arguments with evidence, solve complex problems that have no obvious answer, reach conclusions, offer explanations, conduct research, engage in the give-and-take of ideas, and generally think deeply about what they are being taught (National Research Council, 2002). College is different from high school in many important ways, some obvious, some not so obvious. College is the first place where we expect young people to be adults, not large children.
Almost all of the rules of the game that students have so carefully learned and mastered over the preceding 13 years of schooling are either discarded or modified drastically. The pupil-teacher relationship changes dramatically as do expectations for engagement, independent work, motivation, and intellectual development. All of this occurs at a time when many young people are experiencing significant independence from family and from the role of child for the first time. No wonder that the transition from high school to college is one of the most difficult that many people experience during a lifetime.
At the same time, college faculty consistently report that freshman students need to be spending nearly twice the time they indicate spending currently to prepare for class (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2006) These students do not enter college with a work ethic that prepares them for instructor expectations or course requirements College freshmen who are most successful are those who come prepared to work at the levels faculty members expect.
Those who do not are much less likely to progress beyond entry-level courses, as witnessed by the high failure rates in these courses and the significant proportion of college student who drop out during the freshman year. Finally, the relationship between teacher and student can be much different than in high school. An oft-cited example by college faculty is the first-term freshman who is failing the course, shows up at office hours near the end of the term, and requests “extra credit” in order to be able to pass. College instructors are often mystified by such requests.
The students are equally mystified by the instructor reaction, since this strategy has worked very well for the student throughout high school In other words, the cultural and social expectations about learning and performance that students encounter tend to be vastly different as well. The scores students receive on state tests may not be good indicators of college readiness, but students may believe that passage of the state test is just such an indicator.
Recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggest a fundamental disconnect between trends and scores on state tests and on NAEP tests, which has triggered a federal study of state definitions of “proficiency” (Cavanagh, 2006) When performance on state tests is compared to NAEP performance, significant differences exist from state to state, and students can show improvement on state tests and not corresponding improvement on NAEP In other words, it is very difficult to know what successful performance on a state test really means.
A student who meets all aspects of the college readiness definition would gain in several ways. One is, the student would be comfortable in essentially any entry-level general education course. This is an important level to attain because failure to succeed in one or more general education courses during the first year is closely associated with failure to continue in college (Choy, 2001; Choy, Horn, Nunez, & Chen, 2000).
A definition of college readiness must also address the issue of how students combine the various facets of college readiness. For students, the combination is more complex because it includes the elements under the school’s control along with those that are not. In particular, students need to understand what it really means to be college-ready. They need to understand what they must do as well as what the system requires or expects of them.
They must, first and foremost, understand that college admission is a reasonable and realistic goal that can be attained through planning and diligent attention to necessary tasks. Successful academic preparation for college is grounded in two important dimensions—key cognitive strategies and content knowledge Understanding and mastering key content knowledge is achieved through the exercise of broader cognitive skills embodied within the key cognitive strategies.
With this relationship in mind, it is entirely proper and worthwhile to consider some of the general areas in which students need strong grounding in content that is foundational to the understanding of academic disciplines The case for the importance of challenging content as the framework for developing thinking skills and key cognitive strategies has been made elsewhere and will not be repeated in depth here (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).
Our study clearly shows that many students and their families are not considering college finances as part of their early educational and postsecondary planning. As early as sixth grade, schools can help reverse this trend by encouraging families to explore college finance options. School personnel should be knowledgeable about financial aid and scholarship opportunities, the financial aid process, and how students and parents can obtain financial aid.
Schools should also partner with local college financial aid officers, bank representatives, and other community resources to provide financial aid information and help with early postsecondary planning. Students need to take the responsibility to utilize the information presented to them on college academic and financial requirements and to discuss this information with adults in their lives who may be able to help them.
Not all students have supportive family environments, but support can come from other quarters as well, and students need to be encouraged to reach out to and interact with adults who can help them navigate the college readiness gauntlet, whether these adults are relatives, community service staff, or adults at the school who may be paid staff or volunteers. Young people need personal contact and guidance to know how to become, and believe they are capable of being, college-ready.