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What is college and career readiness? Pointers for educators (Clone)

Educators do more than help students navigate the core academic concepts they’ll need to master before graduating from high school—even though development of academic skills is their primary responsibility. 

They’re also the shepherds who guide learners from the relatively structured sphere of high school to the more open-ended world of college and careers. Case in point: A research paper on the role of teachers in college guidance mentions that high school students are more likely to chat with their teachers—instead of other adults—when it comes to guidance surrounding postsecondary education. This places educators in a unique position to ensure students’ college and career readiness.

Why a diploma isn’t the only factor in college and career readiness

Even the most rigorous high school diploma doesn’t necessarily ensure lasting success for students following graduation. Of course, graduating from high school and receiving this diploma is a commendable step for all high school students—but it’s important to consider how well the skills gained with the credential stack up in today’s highly competitive and tech-fueled world.

A webpage on college and career readiness written by the National PTA asserts that even students who receive diplomas find themselves unprepared for higher education. In 2016, just under 40% of high school graduates who took the ACT®* met at least three of the test’s college readiness benchmarks across subjects, and 1 in 3 didn’t meet any. 

For students who do end up enrolling at a college or university, millions of dollars go into remedial courses that add to tuition but don’t provide class credit—and students who eventually find the pressures of college too great and discontinue their education can wind up seeing significant tuition bills without realizing the economic benefits of a degree.

Of course, this also extends to careers. Businesses rely on a dependable inflow of candidates who are primed for fast-paced 21st-century roles, and high school graduates must demonstrate not only academic know-how, but also the soft skills honed in their many years of schooling.

What does it mean to be college- and career-ready?

On a basic level, educators can consult the National PTA’s college and career readiness definition to guide them in assessing whether their students have the best chances of success. The organization states that college and career readiness “means that a student is prepared to go directly to work or enroll and succeed—without remediation—in a variety of postsecondary institutions so that they are ready to enter a career of their choice.”

College and career readiness “means that a student is prepared to go directly to work or enroll and succeed—without remediation—in a variety of postsecondary institutions so that they are ready to enter a career of their choice.”

However, ensuring students are primed for school or careers involves breaking down this definition a bit more, extracting the core principles that could suggest a student can attain their postgraduation goals. We’ll share just a few areas to keep in mind when determining whether students demonstrate college and career readiness.

1. Students demonstrate key knowledge across basic academic competencies

Although academic understanding itself isn’t enough to ensure learners are well rounded and ready for life after graduation, these competencies are still essential to life in both higher education and careers.

[READ: “3 ways to prepare high school students for college writing standards”]

According to Achieve’s overview on college and career readiness, for instance, students should show a mastery of “rigorous knowledge and skills in core academic disciplines.” This is particularly true when it comes to ELA and math, as understanding both subjects is critical to students passing entrance exams for colleges and jobs or apprenticeship programs.


In its overview of state definitions of college and career readiness, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) also notes that 19 states include academic content knowledge in their definitions of the concept, and nine states specifically mention English, math, or both subjects.

Pro tip: Although basic knowledge across core subjects is key for college and career success, remind students that grades aren’t the end-all and be-all of progress. Fostering intellectual curiosity and a lifelong love of learning is also crucial to ensuring students’ long-term growth. Paper™ has a few helpful pointers for educators looking to cultivate a lasting love of learning in their students.

2. Students showcase ‘soft skills’ that translate well to both higher education and work

Both Achieve and AIR also go beyond academic knowledge, noting that soft skills are equally critical when it comes to success in postsecondary life. 

Many of these competencies are honed naturally in K-12 environments—but teachers can still look for opportunities to dial up the development of such abilities. Various organizations have identified many different and overlapping soft skills that are relevant to college and career readiness. Some of the most commonly cited attributes are:  

  • Written and verbal communication: Clear communication—whether expressed in written or verbal formats—is important no matter which pathway students decide to take.
  • Critical thinking: Students should be able to readily apply their background knowledge and experiences when evaluating new information and forming opinions.
  • Emotional intelligence: People with a high degree of emotional intelligence are adept at understanding and dealing with their own feelings as well as identifying and influencing other people’s emotions. Naturally, this type of intelligence is key to interpersonal success—whether in a college class or the workplace. 
  • Financial literacy: Financial literacy, or the ability to manage funds responsibly and effectively, impacts virtually every student. This skill helps learners manage the inevitable financial peaks and valleys of life.
  • Time management: Solid time-management skills can make all the difference as students grapple with the comparatively unstructured nature of higher education and fast-paced careers.
  • Stress management: This skill allows learners to tackle various challenges—and setbacks—with a healthy, growth-oriented mindset. 

Pro tip: Student-centered instructional tactics are an amazing way to help learners develop the kinds of soft skills that will benefit them both in higher education and the workplace. Thankfully, incorporating student-centered learning isn’t an all-or-nothing endeavor—teachers can start by using tactics such as flipped classrooms or inquiry-based learning.

3. Students participate in opportunities that align with their postsecondary interests and goals

Students who take part in special opportunities that bridge the gap between high school graduation and postsecondary pursuits could fare better than their peers. These activities can take a variety of forms: Achieve mentions AP as well as International Baccalaureate classes, apprenticeships, and any other opportunities that allow students to explore their academic interests or talents and set new goals.


Career and technical education (CTE) is also of particular importance here; well-rounded CTE programs not only help students acquire industry-specific knowledge but also allow learners to explore a variety of job-related interests as they make highly valuable career connections.

Pro tip: Have a student who shows particular interest in a subject you’re teaching? Encourage them to sign up for related advanced classes that will feed their interests and intellectual curiosity.

4. Students are active on a civic level

Of course, students who exhibit excellence focus on more than just academic opportunities, core skills, or CTE-related programs—they also tend to be involved in activities and opportunities outside of their high schools. In fact, AIR notes that eight states incorporate the concept of “citizenship” in their college and career readiness definitions, and Oklahoma goes so far as to call this concept “College, Career, and Citizen Ready.”

Why the focus on citizenship? For these states, it’s about ensuring students know they’re part of something bigger than themselves. In Delaware, for instance, each student is expected to “be an independent learner and have respect for a diverse society and a commitment to responsible citizenship.” Gaining this understanding early on ensures students can seamlessly transition into civic life.

Pro tip: Even if students want to get involved in their communities, they might not be sure where to start. Invite guest speakers from different local organizations to present to your classes and share ways to give back on a civic level.

Wondering what else educators can do to boost students’ engagement in the classroom and beyond? Download our new ebook: “5 ways student-centered interventions can increase engagement.”

*ACT, Inc. is the registered owner of the ACT trademark. Paper is not associated with or sponsored by ACT, Inc.

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