Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy

by | Jun 2010

June 2010

This brief addresses the state policy dimensions of college readiness. It identifies the key issues and problems associated with the college readiness gap, which is a major impediment to increasing the numbers of college students who complete certificates or degrees. This policy brief also provides governors, legislators, and state education leaders with specific steps they need to take to close the readiness gaps in their states. These findings and recommendations were prepared by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB).

The Gap Between Enrolling in College and Being Ready for College

Every year in the United States, nearly 60 percent of first-year college students discover that, despite being fully eligible to attend college, they are not academically ready for postsecondary studies. After enrolling, these students learn that they must take remedial courses in English or mathematics, which do not earn college credits. This gap between college eligibility and college readiness has attracted much attention in the last decade, yet it persists unabated. While access to college remains a major challenge, states have been much more successful in getting students into college than in providing them with the knowledge and skills needed to complete certificates or degrees. Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses. Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college preparatory curriculum, and high school exit examination scores did not ensure college readiness.

Lack of readiness for college is a major culprit in low graduation rates, as the majority of students who begin in remedial courses never complete their college degrees. As a result, improving college readiness must be an essential part of national and state efforts to increase college degree attainment.

In two-year colleges, eligibility for enrollment typically requires only a high school diploma or equivalency. About one-quarter of incoming students to these institutions are fully prepared for college-level studies. The remaining 75 percent need remedial work in English, mathematics, or both. Eligibility for enrollment in less selective four-year institutions (often the “state colleges”) typically includes a high school diploma and additional college-preparatory coursework. Experience shows that these additional eligibility requirements still leave about half of incoming freshmen underprepared for college. Firm data on the proportions of entering college students who need remediation in English and/or math are not available, but the proportions shown in Figure 1 reflect national estimates. All told, as many as 60 percent of incoming freshmen require some remedial instruction.

These national estimates may be conservative, since not all students who are underprepared for college are tested and placed in remedial courses. The California State University (CSU), a large public Figure 1: The Readiness Gap by Institutional Sector 10% 30% 60% Readiness Gap Selective four-year Less selective four-year Nonselective two-year Highly selective institutions require high school diploma + college-prep curriculum + high grade-point average + high test scores + extras Less selective institutions require high school diploma + college-prep curriculum + usually a combination of grade-point average and/or test scores (but lower than most selective institutions) Nonselective (open access) institutions require a high school diploma Readiness Gap Readiness Gap Public Postsecondary Enrollments 0% Percentage of Students College Ready 100% 1 Readiness standards vary widely across states and across institutions within states, which further clouds the meaning of national statistics on remedial rates. 3 university system, for many years has applied placement or readiness standards in reading, writing, and math that are linked to first-year college coursework. All first-time students at all 23 CSU campuses must meet these standards, principally through performance on a common statewide placement examination. Despite a systemwide admissions policy that requires a college-preparatory curriculum and a grade-point average in high school of B or higher, 68 percent of the 50,000 entering freshmen at CSU campuses require remediation in English/language arts, math, or both. Should the same standards be applied by the California Community Colleges with their open admissions policies, their remediation rates would exceed 80 percent. There is every reason to believe that most states would have similar remediation rates if they employed similar college readiness standards and placement tests across all public colleges and universities.

This huge readiness gap is costly to students, families, institutions, and taxpayers, and it is a tremendous obstacle to increasing the nation’s college degree-attainment levels.

View or Download PDF