Assessing College Readiness

How do high school students and their families know if a student in the relevant age range is ready to take on the rigors of college with a likelihood of success? This is a significant question, as each year all but the most highly selective colleges lose from 10-20% of their most recent matriculated class (sometimes more!) for a range of reasons. Some of the lost students drop out due to low grades, some are expelled or suspended for behavioral infractions, and some depart an institution that they ultimately feel wasn’t a good match.

In my view there are two types of college readiness, both quite important. One type is intellectual readiness. This readiness has to do with whether a student possesses the requisite skills for college success. Reading comprehension, basic math skills, and writing ability are the key variables here. Students with significant deficits in any of these areas are starting college at a disadvantage, since college coursework assumes a basic command of literacy and numeracy. In Colorado (and elsewhere), media coverage of the high number of students requiring remedial coursework as they start college demonstrates awareness of the importance of this kind of readiness.

The second type of readiness gets less attention, and is less understood and commented on. This type is emotional maturity, including the discipline required to work hard and prioritize studying, basic time management skills, and a willingness to assume responsibility for one’s choices and actions. In an age where “helicopter parents” have managed virtually every aspect of the lives of their offspring, and with fewer and fewer students working during high school, even over summer breaks, many students may be at a loss at how to take on responsibility for their lives. Yet this is what they must do to be successful in college.

Having spent much of my career as a higher education administrator designing and managing programs to increase student success, I have found in my current career as a college planner that I’m pretty good at predicting which of my clients are ready in this latter sense. When comparing extremely bright but immature students with those with lesser intellectual gifts who are disciplined, my money is on the worker bees nearly every time.

So how do we move the unfocused, unmotivated bees along? Sometimes delaying fulltime college attendance can be just the thing.  There is nothing like a yearlong job to foster additional maturity and appreciation of the benefits of college study. Another option might be a gap year, where students complete service projects while travelling and/or studying with fellow students in an established program. A graduated start, say, at a community college, paired with part time work or an unpaid internship at Mom or Dad’s office or business can also be a good way to go. The idea is for the student to consistently engage in something that builds maturity and promotes life learning while they wait out a year.