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Volume 26, Number 3
May/June 2010

College and Career Readiness

A Matter of One Goal or Two?


Do high schoolers need the same skills to be "college and career ready"? Some say yes; others aren't so sure. (Photo: David Binder, Jobs for the Future)

The Common Core State Standards released this month are meant to make all students “college or career ready” by the end of high school. But as they try to determine the best way to prepare students to meet this goal, policy makers and researchers are struggling with the question of overlap: Just how similar are the skills needed to succeed in college and the skills needed to succeed in a career that does not require a college degree? And can the two sets of skills be taught together?

There is consensus that to be “college-ready” means that students are ready for entry-level, general education college courses without remediation. The definition of “career-ready” is less straightforward. The Common Core’s college-and-career-ready standards draft states that evidence—“standards documents from high-performing states and nations, academic research, frameworks for assessments, such as NAEP, results of surveys of postsecondary instructors and employers”—suggests that similar skills are necessary for both college and workplace success.

The Case for Similar Skills

David Conley, a University of Oregon professor who is cochairing the validation committee for the common core standards, believes that all students need to master the same skills by the time they graduate high school, whether they intend to go to college or not. Analysis of thousands of college courses and pilot studies analyzing career technical courses at community colleges has given Conley insight into what skills students need to be college and career ready. Author of the book College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School, Conley is involved in an effort to match the standards to course descriptions and prerequisites for college entry-level and career-training courses.

“If you take all the career pathways and all of the general education courses and you line them up…you have a reasonable amount of overlap around a set of core academic skills,” he says. “And those are things like being able to write well, being able to organize your thoughts, being able to analyze data and information, [and] being able to conduct research.”

The idea behind being career ready is that students will have basic, transferable skills that will launch them onto a career path, not that a high school graduate would be able to complete all the tasks associated with a specific job.

As cochair of the validation committee, Conley is charged with providing independent validation of the common core standards and the principles that led to their development. He says he is attempting to remain in the role of analyst, rather than advocate, and is leading a study of the standards sponsored by the Gates Foundation. He hopes the findings from that study will help refine the standards and address issues that may arise after the standards are released.

Cyndie Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer for ACT’s education division, agrees that more research needs to be done on the topic of college and career readiness, but she also thinks that the research so far indicates a substantial overlap in the skills required for both. This research includes a 2006 ACT report that creates a statistical concordance between the ACT College Entrance Exam and WorkKeys, a workforce readiness test ACT created with input from employers and labor organizations.

“We provided data that was used, frankly, to determine which standards are absolutely necessary for students to know,” she says. “It’s not just another opinion. These standards have been based on the need for students to have a high likelihood of success when they leave high school to go into their workforce training or post secondary [education].”

Defining "Career Ready"

Others argue, however, that the research is not as conclusive as Conley and Schmeiser believe and that eventually students may need different types of preparation depending on their post-graduation plans. “Nobody really knows, I think, in detail, whether college and career readiness are the same and how to do this,” says Michael Kirst, a professor at Stanford University and head of a technical panel appointed by the National Assessment Governing Board to research the relationship between National Assessment of Educational Progress scores and college and career readiness. “We are getting started on this, but we need a much clearer set of definitions and a much clearer set of studies to define this…We have a very thin research base here. In my judgment, it’s inadequate.”

Kirst says the new standards define the career level that students should be prepared for as one that offers “competitive, livable salaries above the poverty line” with opportunities for career advancement in a growing or sustainable industry. The description is roughly equivalent to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network Zone 3 jobs category, Kirst says. Occupations such as electrician, where employees need certain comprehension skills, such as reading and understanding technical manuals, are considered to be Zone 3. There are, however, postsecondary training programs that prepare students for less demanding Zone 2 occupations at which people can earn a living. Jobs in welding, or auto collision, for instance, Kirst says. This complicates matters as policy makers try to determine where to set the bar.

Robert Schwartz, academic dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, thinks acknowledging the differentiation between those headed to college and into the working world after high school is critical. Schwartz, formerly president of Achieve, Inc. from 1997-2002, says there is a real danger that efforts to create a single required curriculum by equating college and career readiness could hurt students and marginalize the voice of employers in favor of colleges.

Low college graduation rates in the U.S. indicate that many students enroll in college not because of academic interest but because they see no other options, since there is no credentialing system for students who enter the workforce straight out of high school, Schwartz says. He suggests the U.S. can learn from Northern European countries that have structured career programs that students enroll in at 16 or 17 that balance work and learning.

The solution, Schwartz argues, is to recognize that students with different interests and aspirations should have different types of preparation from mid-high school on, while keeping in mind that all students need to be learning transferable skills that will enable them to continue working throughout their lives. Schwartz believes the “college for all” movement should be reframed as "post-secondary education or training for all," as President Obama has proposed.

Beyond the 1950s

Finally, longstanding tradition may pose yet another obstacle to moving to a system of common goals for all high schoolers. “I’ve worked with a lot of school people. It’s a difficult challenge to convince them that their job is not to sort people into two categories,” says Conley, who is a former assistant superintendent. “The system evolved because we believed that there were two different kinds of learning in the world: You learn with your head and you learn with your hands.” The American public will have to evolve its thinking beyond the 1950s notion of “career skills” as work training, he adds.

“We can’t expect people to take this on faith,” Conley says. “On the other hand, you can show how you’re preparing all children with the skills they need to be flexible and adaptive in the future [so] even if they lose their jobs, they can get retrained... or even if they go to college they still know how to work. If you show that you’re doing things that are really a benefit to kids and society in a carefully thought out way—that’s the only way to do this.”

Greg Esposito is a freelance journalist and the former higher education reporter for The Roanoke (VA) Times.

Also by this Author

    For Further Information

    For Further Information

    "An Open Letter to NCTE Members about the Release of the Public Draft of the Common Core State Standards for K-12 English Language Arts," National Council of Teachers of English. Available online at

    "College- and Career-Readiness Standards of the Common Core State Standards Initiative Validity Study." Education Policy Improvement Center (EPIC). Available online at

    Common Core State Standards Initiative:

    "Common Core State Standards Initiative: About NASBE's Work in Common Core," National Association of State Boards of Education:

    D. Conley. College and Career Ready: Helping All Students Succeed Beyond High School. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

    National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP):

    "Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different?" ACT, 2006. Available online at

    ACT Education Division: