How Can We Better Equip Students for Life After High School?

The Problem
Ensuring that all students graduate high school ready for a successful academic life or career has become a national priority. In response, many definitions of college and career readiness have been developed—all with the shared goal of articulating the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in college and careers. Many of the current definitions focus on the core academic skills required to transition from high school to college and careers.

But, as noted in the National High School Center's College and Career Readiness Resource Guide, definitions could be more holistic and actionable if they accounted for other types of skills and knowledge students need to fully prepare for education and work as well as the challenges that they’re likely to encounter after high school. These include important tasks such as choosing a college and major; persisting through degree completion; and choosing a career that fits well with their abilities, interests, and goals. This makes intuitive sense—many of us have personal stories about students who may have struggled academically despite having strong cognitive skills, while other students may have succeeded academically despite deficits in cognitive skills. Consistent with these stories is a growing body of research suggesting the importance of taking a wider variety of factors into account to better understand and predict academic and workplace success.

The Solution
If we want to prepare students to succeed in their educational and career pursuits, we must pay attention to the full spectrum of knowledge and skills proven to be essential for success, including those that lie beyond the core academic disciplines. Research investigating what it takes to be successful in school and at work supports a more holistic view of college and career readiness. Specifically, empirical research has demonstrated that although academic and cognitive skills have traditionally been viewed as the primary prerequisites for success at work (e.g., job performance), noncognitive factors are also reliable predictors of success. The College and Career Readiness and Success Organizer, developed by the College and Career Readiness and Success (CCRS) Center, reinforces the notion that college and career readiness extends beyond academic knowledge.

This notion—the need for a broader definition of college and career readiness—is the focus of a recent report released by ACT, Broadening the Definition of College and Career Readiness: A Holistic Approach. As described in the report, in the workplace, several noncognitive characteristics such as helping coworkers and being cooperative are important for effective job performance. Noncognitive characteristics are also related to other career outcomes, such as job satisfaction and turnover intentions. In educational settings, both cognitive and noncognitive skills help predict college retention. If all of these various dimensions are important for education and career success, it follows that readiness and preparation should similarly be focused on a broad and diverse set of personal characteristics and skills.

The report highlights current evidence on the importance of having a well-educated nation and the reality that the current educational system is leaving a large percentage of high school graduates unprepared for college and work. An overview of previous attempts to operationalize college and career readiness and their limitations, notably the narrow focus on core academic skills, is provided. In addition, the report summarizes existing empirical evidence on the predictors of educational and workplace success, with the findings clearly indicating that success in school and at work is a function of a wide range of cognitive and noncognitive characteristics and skills, supporting the need for a more holistic view of college and career readiness.

The paper concludes by proposing an expanded framework of college and career readiness, which includes skills in four domains:

  • Core academic skills in mathematics, science, and English language arts based on an expanded definition of these skills and mapped to learning progressions from kindergarten through career.
  • Cross-cutting capabilities such as critical thinking and collaborative problem solving and information and technology skills.
  • Behavioral skills related to success in education and the workforce, such as dependability, working effectively with others, adapting, and managing stress.
  • Education and career skills needed to successfully navigate educational and career paths, including self-knowledge of abilities, interests, values, etc.; knowledge about majors and occupations; and a variety of skills related to educational and career exploration, planning, and decision making. 

To read more, access the full report here.

Krista Mattern, Ph.D. is a principal research scientist at ACT and the lead author of the report.

Photo credit: Flickr.

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