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10 Invisible Problems Impacting College Readiness

Posted on Wednesday January 2, 2013 by Staff Writers


While more students go to college now than ever, startling numbers of these students drop out before earning their college degrees. One of the problems contributing to this high attrition rate is that many students simply aren’t ready to enter college. They lack the academic, financial, and social skills to handle the challenges that higher education poses, and many colleges can’t or don’t provide the extra support that students need to succeed.

Yet the problem of college completion isn’t entirely the responsibility of colleges to solve. There are many things that contribute to students not being college-ready, well before they ever begin putting in applications to schools. Here, we address a handful of the factors that are holding students back from being ready to start college; some will be obvious but others are much more surprising, and may deserve much more attention than they’re getting at present.

  1. Standardized tests.

    While standardized tests can help educators and administrators to gauge where students are and whether they’re meeting educational standards, recent research suggests that they may not be doing students any favors when it comes to prepping them for college. Tests that focus on school accountability are likely getting in the way of the development of tests that could actually help to transform teaching and learning, according to the findings of the Gordon Commission. Experts found that standardized tests focused too heavily on skills and knowledge and not enough on the complex reasoning required to succeed in college and in a career.

  2. Low expectations.

    Many high school students may be lacking in college readiness simply because their schools have low expectations for students. If teachers and administrators don’t set standards high and expect that students can and will go on to get a college education, students often don’t make up for the gap in motivation on their own. As a result, students graduate lacking in the knowledge and skills that will allow them to get ahead in post-secondary education and may not even expect college, even a two-year degree program, to be a potential part of their future.

  3. Failure to see high school as college prep.

    Another problem affecting the college readiness of some students is the way they look at high school education. Many students view high school as an independent educational experience, not connecting what they learn to being necessary to move on to the next level of schooling. Some studies have suggested that college prep start as early as middle school, asking students to think about the careers they’d like to pursue and to figure out what they need to do in order to make those goals a reality. This failure to see high school as college prep could be linked to the much larger issue of high school educational programs simply not being geared towards readying students for college study, however.

  4. Neighborhoods.

    Money can’t buy you smarts…but it can buy you tutors, books, and all kinds of academic support. It can also change attitudes about whether or not college education is important, and where students come from can play a critical role in preparing them mentally for college. A new report shows that students coming from poorer neighborhoods, most of them minorities, are some of the least prepared to head to college, highlighting major inequities in the public education system. It’s not just money, however, that has an impact. The study found that a combination of socioeconomic factors make the difference in certain neighborhoods, including a mother’s level of education, unemployment rates, and citizenship status.

  5. Social capital.

    One of the most important but often ignored factors in predicting college readiness is social capital. Essentially, social capital is the way individuals use their social contacts to get ahead. In terms of college readiness, social capital often comes in the form of guidance, information, and support. For those who don’t have parents who have a college degree, this social capital can often be lacking, and students and their parents may not have anyone to turn to, to ask about applying, preparing, or choosing colleges. It sounds trivial, but research has shown that these kinds of connections and the support they provide can have a huge impact on both college readiness and college success.

  6. Lack of knowledge about higher education.

    Another factor holding students back from being college-ready is a simple lack of knowledge about higher education, a factor very closely related to social capital. If students do not know much about college, they will not know how or when to prepare. They will also lack the skills required to choose a college that best suits their needs, find out what financial aid they can get, and create and put together high-quality applications for schools. In some schools where it is rare for students to go on to college, many students may not even realize that higher education is an option for them. These kinds of gaps in knowledge can seriously impact a student’s chances of going to college and having success once they get there.

  7. Poor mastery of behavioral skills.

    Being college-ready is about more than knowing how to do a certain kind of math or to write well. There are a host of behavioral skills that students also need to master in order to be ready to go on to college and to be successful there. These can include self-awareness, communication, perseverance, self-monitoring, and self-control, all of which can affect study skills, work habits, time management, and social problem-solving skills. Without a chance to build these skills as teens in high school and middle school, students will be ill-prepared to enter a college degree program and are significantly more likely to drop out.

  8. Lack of basic academic skills.

    The fact that many colleges aren’t preparing students for college academically isn’t really an invisible problem, but it is certainly one of the most prevalent reasons students aren’t ready to head to college. Students’ achievement levels are so low that only 25% of students nationwide were able to meet the ACT’s college preparedness benchmarks. In fact, ACT administrators estimated that as many as 75% of 2011′s college freshmen would need to take remedial classes in science and math to catch up to the college level. Having to take remedial courses isn’t just a sign that students aren’t ready for college; it can also increase the likelihood that a student will not finish a degree program. Students who take remedial courses are more likely to drop out, citing frustration and financial concerns as major issues.

  9. Few mentors and support systems.

    For students who may be the first in their families to attend college, finding a mentor or a support system is critical to becoming college-ready. Yet many students lack access to these kinds of individuals in their schools or work with counselors who are overloaded with students and cannot spend enough time with individuals discussing their high school performance and college options. Even more critical for some minority students are role models from their own racial, ethnic, or social backgrounds. While some schools are implementing programs aiming to change this, it’s still a major factor in holding back college readiness for students all over the U.S.

  10. Poor public education policies.

    Many have pointed to poor education policies as being some of the driving forces behind students not being prepared for college. A focus on standardized testing and lowered academic standards at many high schools and middle schools across the nation may be contributing to a growing number of students not being ready for college after high school graduation. So far, current policies haven’t made any major gains, and in some places, academic gains have stagnated and racial gaps in achievement have increased. A critical first step in getting students ready for college is ensuring that the policies that are in place actually create an environment where students are learning the academic and social skills they need to succeed and getting support from teachers and counselors to pursue college if they are interested.