Readiness: College and Student

As colleges and universities seek to recruit a more diverse student body, they will also welcome students who are, on the whole, less academically prepared (Selingo, 2016). According to some estimates “more than half of incoming community-college students, and approximately 20 percent of incoming students at four-year institutions, are academically unprepared when they arrive on campus” (Gilkey, 2017). These estimates reflect a trend that has been developing for well over half a century. According to Springer, Wilson, and Dole (2014), the gap between high school and college work has been widening steadily for decades. This gap is especially pronounced in the area of critical reading. In fact, evidence suggests the level of complexity in texts being read in high schools is lowering while the demands of college and career are staying the same or rising (p. 300). Here at Providence College, this trend manifests in widely shared faculty concerns about students’ ability to read critically.

The readiness gap is even more pronounced among historically underrepresented or underserved populations. A 2014 study using data from the Education Longitudinal Study, sponsored by the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics, concluded that “there are significant racial/ethnic differences in students’ college readiness” (Strayhorn, 2014, p. 988). On the whole, “White and Asian students were deemed more ‘college ready’ than their Black, Latino, and Native American peers in terms of standardized reading and math scores, class preparation, perceived writing ability, 12th grade math self-efficacy, and 12th grade math level.” While these findings confirm previous reports (Conley, 2008; Roderick et al., 2009), “they also clarify where racial disparities exist in terms of college readiness” (Strayhorn, 2014, p. 988). These disparities may be linked to a number of factors which may or may not include the quality of the high school experience, but may also include a lack of family support and/or financial challenges that curtail time spent studying – a positive predictor of readiness. This study also found significant differences in college readiness related to socio-economic status (SES). In fact, SES was found to be the most powerful influence on readiness. And finally, the study found that first-generation students “were consistently disadvantaged in terms of college readiness, compared to their continuing- generation peers” (p. 988). This finding was consistent across all six indicators mentioned above.

While many students who are underprepared and/or low-SES will choose more affordable community colleges or more open-access, public, four-year institutions, other institutions must develop strategies and allocate resources to recruit and retain these students, especially if they hope to maintain and strengthen their own diversity and inclusiveness. Initiatives such as summer bridge programs [SBPs] and the first-year experiences would appear to be steps in the right direction, as both are designed to foster academic readiness and engagement. Research on the efficacy of SBPs has been largely inconclusive. In fact, “few studies about their effectiveness or meta-analytic reviews exist” (Sablan, 2014, p. 1036). Where research does exist, it does suggest that SBPs help in retaining students. However, studies of other outcomes, such as college GPA, have been mixed, with some concluding that bridge program students “do not do any different and sometimes do worse than others in their college achievement” (Sablan, 2014, p. 1045). Findings related to non-cognitive outcomes have also been mixed. For example, one study which examined self-efficacy, social skills, and a sense of belonging among SBP students found positive results for self-efficacy, whereas another study that compared program and non-program students found no significant difference in “end-of-summer academic, social, and career self-efficacy” (p. 1045).

Much like the research on bridge programs, research on remedial courses has also been ambiguous. According to a 2012 report, Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere, remediation as a prerequisite to gateway courses has been largely ineffective. Meanwhile, research on paired or integrated learning experiences has shown results that are more consistently positive. According to the report, it is better, and more effective, to make extra help “a co-requisite, not a prerequisite” (p. 3) – that is, to provide more opportunities to develop basic skills in the context of students’ academic interests or, at the very least, courses that fulfill degree requirements. Indeed, students have “been proven to succeed in redesigned first-year classes with built-in, just-in-time tutoring and support” (p. 3). Moreover, “[i]nstitutions that have used this approach have seen their underprepared students succeed at the same rates as their college-ready peers.” (p. 3).

These findings suggest some important questions regarding the best means to close the readiness gap for increasing numbers of underprepared students. Further, institutions must continue to assess their programs rigorously to discern the relative efficacy, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness of each, especially with rates of under-preparedness on the rise. At Providence College, is it best to expand our Friar Foundations Program and create more integrated learning experiences that pair one or both “remedial” courses (i.e., INT 100 and WRT 100) with a three-credit course that meets a core requirement? Or is it best to re-imagine our first-year experience course as an integrated learning experience that gets paired with a “companion course,” such as DWC or other historically difficult courses, perhaps even in the sciences?

Regardless of which form (or forms) our efforts to close the gap take, they must harness the power of well-established research on readiness, including Conley’s Four Keys.[1] While each of these keys is important, the most critical may be ownership of learning. According to Conley and French (2014), “Ownership of learning cannot compensate entirely for fundamental deficits in content knowledge mastery. However, students with strong motivation and drive, a desire to achieve goals, a belief in their capacity for success, the ability to reflect on their learning strategies, and a willingness to persist in the face of obstacles can overcome specific shortcomings in English and mathematics content knowledge or obtain the knowledge necessary to succeed” (p. 1019). Purposeful integration of the fourth key into our efforts to close the readiness gap seems like a promising strategy. In fact, we might even devise strategies to measure incoming students’ aptitude in this area. According to Conley and French (2014), “A great deal of insight can be gained by giving students more opportunities to explore their interests and set challenging goals for themselves, and then documenting their aspirations and the actions they take to achieve their goals. These sorts of behaviors cannot really be faked, especially over time” (pp. 1029). In light of this assertion, high school teachers might be asked to comment on their perceptions of incoming students’ ability to take ownership (e.g., in letters of recommendation); or perhaps Admissions could design short assessments for high school teachers and guidance counselors, not to determine acceptance or denial, but to help the College identify those who would benefit from more intensive, curricular or co-curricular support in taking ownership. Beyond these types of assessments, “curriculum and instruction need to be examined to ascertain the degree to which they promote student ownership of learning in the first place” (Conley & French, 2014, p. 1030).

Another means to close the readiness gap for incoming students is partnering with high schools. According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “many states and communities have doubled down on acceleration strategies for high-school students, such as expanded dual-enrollment and early-college opportunities” (Gilkey, 2017). “Speed-up” strategies like these are vital, but “[w]e also need a concentrated effort to ‘catch up’ students who are further behind and have yet to demonstrate postsecondary readiness in high school” (Gilkey, 2017). Institutions of higher education can, and should, be partners in this effort, says an organization called Higher Ed for Higher Standards. For example, scores on state tests can be “used to identify which students need extra support in high school to be successful in college,” and then colleges can “work with high schools to co-develop and deliver courses that provide developmental content” in the 12th grade (Gilkey, 2017).

Beyond these efforts to close the readiness gap, colleges and universities can take further steps to make themselves more “student-ready.” For example, McNair, et al’s Becoming a Student-Ready College recommends a set of future-focused operating principles for institutions of higher education:

  1. (1) Create a culture in which “all people who work on campus have the capacity to be effective educators and leaders” (McNair, et al, 2016, p. 32). This does not mean that everyone becomes a “counselor.” It means that “each and every person who is part of the ecosystem to make a personal decision to take responsibility and ownership for student success” (p. 82).
  2. (2) Know who your students are (or will be) and commit to ongoing institutional self-assessment. This means engaging in “hard dialogues about the climate for underserved students on your campus, with the goal of effecting a paradigm shift in language and actions’” (McNair, et al, 2016, p. 80). This paradigm shift should work to remove systemic barriers that interfere with students’ progress and success.
  3. (3) Create space and time to recognize and acknowledge the “biases and the stereotypes that may negatively influence the students we serve” (McNair, et al, 2016, p. 83). We must learn to resist and overwrite “deficit-minded thinking,” which can lead to “deficit-minded practices and beliefs about student success” (p. 85). Ongoing, intergroup dialogues can be very effective in encouraging this kind of self-examination.
  4. (4) Reimagine the traditional committee approach. Rather than implementing change through committees, which are often comprised of those in more prominent positions, McNair, et al “propose a more inclusive way of sense making to generate ideas – topical dialogues and campus forums open to all faculty, staff, and administrators to explore individual perspectives and to build shared commitments and common understanding of the goals and values of the institution as well as promising practices for advancing student success. The point at which the ‘committee’ starts in the planning process will shape every action that takes place in the design and implementation of the final recommendations” (McNair, et al, 2016, pp. 88-89).
  5. (5) Develop a set of learning outcomes — a clear, shared vision of what student success means. This vision should be “part of the institutional culture” (McNair, et al, 2016, p. 89). This means that everyone at the college is keenly aware of the outcomes; there is a comprehensive plan to assess students’ work products to ensure that all individuals and groups (e.g., historically underserved populations) are proficient; students have a clear understanding of the outcomes, why they are integral to their success and how they can achieve proficiency in curricular and co-curricular ways; and every educator on campus understands his/her role in helping students achieve desired outcomes.
  6. (6) Be intentional with respect to the implementation of High Impact Practices. Quite often, “when campus educators discuss embedding HIPs into the curriculum and co-curriculum experience, they often fail to explore intentionality in connecting the implementation of HIPs to defined learning outcomes. And as they discuss selecting, designing, and implementing HIPs, they also often overlook assessing those HIP-influenced outcomes and analyzing equity in student participation” (McNair, et al, 2016, p. 92). To guard against these pitfalls, institutions should have a model for discussing the intentionality of HIPs. HIPs should also be designed with certain criteria in mind. These include high performance-level expectations, significant investment of time/effort by students over an extended period, interactions with faculty about substantive matters, experience with people/circumstances that are different, timely, constructive feedback on students’ progress; structured opportunities to reflect upon and integrate learning, opportunities for real-world applications of learning, and public displays of competence (pp. 92-93).


Complete College America. (2012). Remediation: Higher education’s bridge to nowhere. Indianapolis, IN. Retrieved from

Conley, D.T. (2008).  Rethinking college readiness.  In B. Barefoot (Ed.), The first year and beyond: Rethinking the challenge of collegiate transition (Vol. 144, pp. 3-13).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Conley, D.T., & French, E.M. (2014).  Student ownership of learning as a key component of college readiness.  American Behavioral Scientist, 58(8), 1018-1034.

Gilkey, S. (2017, April 2).  Postsecondary success starts in high school.  Chronicle of Higher Education.  Retrieved from

McNair, T.B., Albertine, S., Cooper, M.A., McDonald, N., & Major, Jr., T. (2016).  Becoming a student-ready college: A new culture of leadership for student success.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Roderick, M., Nagaoka, J., & Coca, V. (2009).  College readiness for all: The challenge for urban high schools.  Future of Children, 19, 185-210.

Sablan, J.R.  The challenge of summer bridge programs.  (2014). American Behavioral Scientist, 58 (8), 1035-1050.

Selingo, J.J. (2016).  The decade ahead: The seismic shifts transforming the future of higher education. Washington, D.C.: Chronicle of Higher Education.

Selingo, J.J. (2017).  The future of enrollment: Where colleges will find their next students.  Washington, D.C.: Chronicle of Higher Education.

Springer, S.E., Wilson, T.J., & Dole, J.A. (2014).  Ready or not: Recognizing and preparing college-ready students.  Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58(4), 299-307.

Strayhorn, T.L. (2014).  Modeling the determinants of college readiness for historically underrepresented students at 4-year colleges and universities.  American Behavioral Scientist, 58 (8), 972-993.


[1] These keys include: thinking skills or key cognitive strategies or thinking skills; key content knowledge or attitudes toward and understanding of the structure of the content being presented; key skills techniques or ownership of learning in the form of self-regulatory behaviors along with specific methods for being an effective learner, or key skills; and key transition knowledge or contextual knowledge required to select a college, apply successfully, cope with financial demands, understand the culture of the institution, and be aware of how the role of the college student is different from that of the high school students. All four “were derived from analysis of entry-level postsecondary courses or from related research on college readiness and success. All are actionable; in other words, they can be taught and learned and are not personality traits or general cognitive abilities” (Conley & French, 2014, p. 1019).

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