The case for college readiness

There is a new movement emphasizing the need for education after high school. In the 20th century, high schools that graduated most of their students, with about one-third obtaining a college degree, filled the needs of the workforce. That won’t work in the 21st-century global economy.

By preparing all students for college, schools are ensuring that their students are not simply graduating, but graduating to a world of options and possibilities for their future. Because the knowledge, skills, and habits necessary for success in college are essentially the same knowledge, skills, and habits necessary for success in career and life, focusing on preparing students for college is a way for schools to produce productive, contributing citizens who are living meaningful, fulfilling lives (ACT, Inc.,2006; Lippman, Atienza, Rivers, and Keith, 2008).

An economic necessity

“In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity – it is a pre-requisite…And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training” (Obama, 2009). Obama’s request echoes what researchers have been suggesting for several years: a college education is no longer an option but an imperative.

“Education and training beyond high school is a prerequisite for employment that supports a middle-class life.” (Callan, 2008, p. 5). Harvard economists have proposed that universal access to college will be essential to keeping American workers competitive in the global information economy of the 21st century (Katz & Goldin, 2008).  Income and the risk of being unemployed are clearly tied to education.

Source:Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey

Other Benefits of a College Degree

Earning a college degree offers a variety of benefits to individuals, their families, and society as a whole. While economic benefit is widely cited as the major rationale for obtaining a college education, other benefits exist that cannot be ignored.  A study conducted by The Institute for Higher Education Policy (1998) found that the benefits of higher education include:

  1. Public social benefits: reduced crime rates; higher voter participation (30% higher); more social cohesion and appreciation of diversity or social "connectedness"; greater ability to adapt to technology; and more charitable giving and volunteerism.

  2. Private social benefits: longer life expectancy and better general health; improved quality of life for college graduates’ children; better consumer decision-making; and improved personal status.

  3. Public economic benefits: higher contributions to tax revenues; greater productivity; higher consumption; and reduced reliance on government financial support.

  4. Private economic benefits: higher lifetime and average salaries (73% more) for those who have gone to college; higher employment rates and greater job consistency; higher savings levels; improved working conditions and mobility.

Minnesota perspective

In Minnesota, about 70% of high school graduates attend a postsecondary institution the following fall, but many do not graduate (Minnesota Office of Higher Education, 2010).  Their lack of readiness is likely a significant cause.  For example:

  • Of the Minnesota public high school graduates from the class of 2005 that entered postsecondary education in Minnesota, 38% had to take some form of developmental / remedial (math, English, or science) non-credit bearing course.
  • Only 32% of Minnesota’s 2009 ACT-tested graduates met all four College Readiness Benchmarks set by ACT: an 18 in English, 22 in Math, 21 in Reading, and 24 in Science.
  • The disparity in college readiness as a function of race/ethnicity is even worse.  While 35% of White students are deemed college ready based on their composite ACT score, only 7% of Black students scored college ready.


Percent of Minnesota high school students taking the ACT in 2009 whose composite scores from the English, Math, Science, and Reading portions of the test indicate that they are not likely to be successful in first-year college coursework. Adapted from “ACT Profile Report, Graduating Class 2009, Minnesota” by The ACT.


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