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Professional Opinion

What’s Readiness Got to Do with College and Career Success?

Educators can ensure success by understanding the causes of postsecondary failure.
Members of the 2009 YouthBuild graduating class of Brockton Mass. worked toward their GEDs or diplomas while learning job skills by building affordable housing for homeless and low-income people.

"Readiness" is in. But are educators prepared for the implications?

The push for common core standards—coupled with the distressing numbers of college students who need remedial courses and the dissatisfaction among business leaders with the preparation of high school graduates—has ignited the institutional and political movement to tackle the "readiness problem."

Inadequate academic preparation is certainly at the core of the problem. But in surveys, employers zoom in on something else: a lack of social, emotional and civic competencies—including a work ethic, a spirit of teamwork and communications skills—that stand as key barriers to employment for four out of every 10 high school graduates who apply for entry-level jobs. Young people themselves often note their own deficiencies in what can be called "life readiness," such as limited experience in managing finances; difficulty finding adequate transportation, housing and child care; and enormous financial pressures that force them to squeeze in school around jobs.

Increasing Postsecondary Success

Educators can't watch the babies and hand over their car keys. But, they can ensure the readiness of students by understanding the elements of postsecondary success, and understanding the causes and consequences of postsecondary failure. Here are two examples.

YouthBuild programs enable disconnected youth to earn their GEDs or high school diplomas while simultaneously developing marketable skills by constructing affordable homes for low-income families. In 2008, YouthBuild USA launched a postsecondary education initiative to increase the number of YouthBuild participants who earn a postsecondary degree or credential. Here's what happened:

  • In less than 24 months, the pilot sites increased GED and diploma rates by 20 percent and postsecondary placement rates by 18 percent.
  • Almost two-thirds of the program graduates who went on to postsecondary institutions continued pursuing that education into their second year—almost triple the national average for low-income, first-generation postsecondary students.

What did YouthBuild do right? It provided supports aimed at all three levels of need: (1) ensuring such basics as health, safety, transportation and emergency resources; (2) strengthening social and civic connections through supportive relationships, college and career counseling, high expectations and opportunities for leadership development; and (3) addressing academic gaps through remediation, summer bridge programs and ongoing advising.

There is a strong chance that there is a YouthBuild program within driving distance of your district; visiting one is worth the gas.

Preventing Postsecondary Failure

The expense of a postsecondary education has long been identified as one of the key barriers to college entry. But for those who enter college, lack of financial resources is also a major contributor to postsecondary failure. That's because few students and families have the information they need to make good decisions about loans.

That's why programs like ACCESS are so important. This nonprofit in Boston and Springfield, Mass., operates an advising program that helps high school students find an affordable path to and through college. It provides detailed information and one-on-one support to students about applying for financial aid, comparing costs of aid offered by schools, and reviewing loan options. ACCESS advisers work in all 53 public high schools in Boston and Springfield; they spend at least one day a week at each as presenters and advocates, training students and staffers on the ins and outs of the myriad arrangements associated with financial aid, lenders and institutions.

The lessons of YouthBuild and ACCESS apply across the board. All educational institutions can deliver these same supports, especially if they partner with community organizations. The more that students, families and teachers understand what it takes not only to start college but to complete it, the more we can close one of the most costly gaps between low-income/minority students and white/ affluent students: the completion gap.

Karen Pittman is president and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, a nonprofit action tank dedicated to helping communities make sure all young people are ready by 21 for college, work and life.