Rethinking College Readiness

by David T. Conley

The likelihood that students will make a successful transition to the college environment is often a function of their readiness—the degree to which previous educational and personal experiences have equipped them for the expectations and demands they will encounter in college.  A key problem is that current measures of college preparation don’t fully get at what it means to be college ready. A new definition and a broader, more comprehensive conception of college readiness are both necessary if more students are to be prepared to go on to college.


College readiness can be defined as the level of preparation a student needs in order to enroll and succeed—without remediation—in credit-bearing general education courses at a postsecondary institution that offers a baccalaureate degree or transfer to a baccalaureate program. “Succeed” is defined as completing entry-level courses at a level of understanding and proficiency that makes it possible to take the next course in the sequence or the next level of course in the subject area.

The college-ready student envisioned by this definition is able to understand what is expected in a college course, can cope with the content knowledge that is presented, and can understand the key intellectual lessons and retain the dispositions the course is designed to develop in students. In addition, the student who is ready for college will be able to understand the culture and structure of postsecondary education and the ways of knowing and the intellectual norms of this academic and social environment.


College readiness is a multi-faceted concept comprising numerous factors both internal and external to the classroom environment. The model presented in this article derives from the author’s research and is organized around four key facets.


In practice, these four facets are neither mutually exclusive nor perfectly nested as portrayed in the model. The factors interact, and a lack of competency in any of the four areas can cause students to fail to complete their first year in college successfully. The model, explained in greater detail below, argues for a more comprehensive conception of what it means to be college ready and for more attention to be paid to student preparation in each of the four facets.

Key Cognitive Strategies

At the heart of college readiness is development of the cognitive and metacognitive capabilities of incoming students. These include analysis, interpretation, precision and accuracy, problem solving, and reasoning. Student facility with these strategies has been consistently identified as being centrally important to college success (e.g., Conley, 2003b, 2005; Conley & Bowers, 2008; National Research Council, 2002). Several studies of college faculty members nationwide, regardless of the selectivity of the postsecondary institution, expressed near-universal agreement that students arrive largely unprepared for the intellectual demands and expectations of college (Conley, 2003b). They have difficulty formulating and solving problems, evaluating and incorporating reference material appropriately, developing a logical and coherent argument or explanation, interpreting data or conflicting points of view, and completing their assignments and projects with precision and accuracy (Conley, McGaughy, & Gray, 2008). Several important cognitive strategies are presented below as examples.

Problem formulation and problem solving: The student develops and applies multiple strategies to formulate and solve routine and non-routine problems, and selects the appropriate method for solving complex problems.

Research: The student engages in active inquiry and dialogue about subject matter and research questions and seeks evidence to defend arguments, explanations, or lines of reasoning. The student documents assertions and builds an argument that extends from previous findings or arguments. The student utilizes appropriate references to support an assertion or a line of reasoning. The student identifies and evaluates data, material, and sources for quality of content, validity, credibility, and relevance. The student compares and contrasts sources and findings and generates summaries and explanations of source materials.

Reasoning, argumentation, proof: The student constructs well-reasoned arguments or proofs to explain phenomena or issues, utilizes recognized forms of reasoning to construct an argument and defend a point of view or conclusion, accepts critiques of or challenge to assertions, and addresses critiques and challenges by providing a logical explanation or refutation, or by acknowledging the accuracy of the critique or challenge.

Interpretation: The student analyzes competing and conflicting descriptions of an event or issue to determine the strengths and flaws in each description and any commonalities among or distinctions between them. The student synthesizes the results of an analysis of competing or conflicting descriptions of an event or issue or phenomenon into a coherent explanation. The student states the interpretation that is most likely correct or is most reasonable, based on the available evidence. The student presents orally or in writing an extended description, summary, and evaluation of varied perspectives and conflicting points of view on a topic or issue.

Precision and accuracy: The student knows what type of precision is appropriate to the task and the subject area, is able to increase precision and accuracy when a task or process is repeated, and uses precision appropriately to reach correct conclusions in the context of the task or subject.

These key cognitive strategies are broadly representative of the foundational elements that underlie various “ways of knowing.” They are at the heart of the intellectual endeavor of postsecondary education and are how postsecondary faculty members think about their subject areas. They are necessary to discern truth and meaning as well as to pursue them.

Academic Knowledge and Skills

Linked closely with the key cognitive strategies are specific types of content knowledge. Entering college students should possess an understanding of the “big ideas” of each subject area. Several sets college readiness standards specify in detail the key knowledge associated with college success (e.g., Achieve, Inc., The Education Trust, & Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, 2004; ACT, 2004; College Board (2006); Conley, 2003a, 2003b; Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, 2008). Following are some examples of key structures, concepts and knowledge associated with several core academic subjects. A more comprehensive exposition is contained in College Knowledge (Conley, 2005).

English:  The knowledge and skills developed in entry-level English courses enable students to engage texts critically and create well-written, organized, and supported products, both oral and written. The foundations of English include reading comprehension, literature, writing, editing, information gathering, analysis, critiques, and connections. Students need to build vocabulary and word analysis skills and to utilize techniques such as strategic reading that will help them understand a wide range of non-fiction and technical texts. Knowing when to re-read a passage and how to underline key terms and concepts strategically aids comprehension and retention of key content.

Math: Students need a thorough understanding of the basic concepts, principles, and techniques of algebra. They use conceptual understandings to specify a problem, to solve the problem, and to interpret the solution. They know when and how to estimate to determine the reasonableness of answers and can use a calculator appropriately as a tool.

Science:  Students utilize scientific thinking in all its facets. This involves learning to think like a scientist, using communication conventions followed by scientists, basing conclusions on empirical evidence, and subjecting findings to challenge and interpretation. Students view scientific knowledge as both constant and changing, and understand that the discovery of new scientific knowledge does not mean that previous knowledge was necessarily “wrong.”  Students grasp that scientists think in terms of models and systems. Students master core concepts, principles, laws, and vocabulary of the scientific discipline being studied, and learn to view laboratory settings as environments where content knowledge and scientific thinking strategies converge.

Social Studies:  The social sciences entail a range of subject areas within which analytic methods emphasize skills such as interpreting sources, evaluating evidence and competing claims, and understanding themes and events within larger frameworks. Students need to be aware that the social sciences consist of “big ideas” (theories and concepts) that form the structure for each discipline.

Academic Behaviors

Also contributing to student success is a set of academic self-management behaviors. Among these are time management, strategic study skills, awareness of one’s true performance, persistence, and the ability to utilize study groups. All require students to demonstrate high degrees of self-awareness, self-control, and intentionality. Research on the thinking of effective learners has shown that such individuals tend to monitor actively, to regulate, to evaluate, and to direct their own thinking (Ritchhart, 2002).

Examples include awareness of one’s current level of mastery and understanding (and misunderstandings) of a subject; the ability to reflect on what worked and what needed improvement regarding a particular academic task; the ability to persist when presented with a novel, difficult, or ambiguous task; the tendency to identify and systematically select among and employ a range of learning strategies; and the capability to transfer learning and strategies from familiar settings and situations to new ones (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

Another important set of academic behaviors is student mastery of study skills. Study skills encompass active learning strategies that go far beyond reading the text and answering the homework questions. Key study-skill behaviors include time management, stress management, task prioritizing, using information resources, taking class notes, and communicating with teachers and advisors (Robbins et al., 2004). An additional critical skill is the ability to participate successfully in a study group.

Time management is perhaps the most foundational of all academic behaviors. Time management techniques and habits include accurately estimating how much time it takes to complete outstanding and anticipated tasks and allocating sufficient time to complete the tasks; using calendars and creating “to do” lists to organize studying into productive chunks of time; locating and utilizing settings conducive to proper study; and prioritizing study time in relation to competing demands such as work and socializing.

Contextual Skills and Awareness (“College Knowledge”)

Finally, an increasing number of studies have highlighted the complexity of the contextual knowledge associated with application and acculturation to college (e.g., Conley, 2005; Lundell, Higbee, Hipp, & Copeland, 2004; Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2004). Contextual awareness, or “college knowledge,” also include the ability to interact with professors and peers and other members of an intellectual community.

This dimension includes all the information—both formal and informal, stated and unstated—necessary to be eligible for admission, select an appropriate postsecondary institution, gain admission to a college, and obtain financial aid. Students with college knowledge understand college admission criteria including high school course requirements, know how to complete an application, understand that different colleges have different missions, can state approximate tuition costs and the likelihood of financial aid from various types of colleges, and know admissions-testing requirements and deadlines (Conley, 2005; Robbins et al., 2004; Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2004).

Success in college is enhanced for students who possess the knowledge and skills that enable them to interact with a diverse cross-section of academicians and peers. These include the ability to collaborate and work in a team; knowledge of the norms of the “academic” culture and how one interacts with professors, administrators, and others in that environment; the ability to be comfortable around people from different backgrounds and cultures; the ability to take advantage of academic and personal support resources available on most campuses; and the ability to demonstrate leadership skills in a variety of settings.


Clearly, far fewer students are truly ready for college when measured against this multi-dimensional model than when judged by the conventional standard of courses taken and grades received in high school. The goal of presenting a more comprehensive model of college readiness is not to deny students entrance to college, but to highlight the gaps that exist between college-eligible and college-ready.

By adopting the four-part conception of college readiness presented in this article, high schools and colleges can agree on what it means for students to be ready for postsecondary education. The importance of greater agreement is heightened when an ever-increasing proportion of high school students are choosing to go to college. Making certain that they are not just eligible, but prepared, will help them achieve their goals and help colleges function more effectively.



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Conley, D. T. (2005). College knowledge: What it really takes for students to succeed and what we can do to get them ready. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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1 Adapted from: Conley, D. T. (2007). Toward a comprehensive conception of college readiness. Eugene, OR: Educational Policy Improvement Center.



David T. Conley is a Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Oregon.  He is the founder and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research (CEPR) at the University of Oregon and founder and chief executive officer of the Educational Policy Improvement Center  (EPIC), a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization.   Dr. Conley can be reached at


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