College & Career Ready: What’s in a Definition?

No matter what side you’re on in the battle over standards, testing, school choice, or teacher tenure, everybody agrees that kids must leave high school ready for college and careers.

State leaders are giving this commitment a lot of thought and are working to define what “college and career ready” means for their students. So far, 36 states and the District of Columbia have working definitions. While many vary only slightly from the mainstay, “A college-and career-ready student is prepared to succeed in college and postsecondary workforce training programs,” some states have incorporated refreshingly robust thinking about the overarching purpose of schooling in the 21stcentury.

Nearly a hundred years ago education philosopher John Dewey wrote, “our chief business with [the young] is to enable them to share in a common life”—social, economic, domestic, global, political, legal, and even for some, religious.

But Dewey wasn’t talking about schools; he was taking about education in its broadest sense—as a means to the “social continuity of life” (Democracy and Education1913). In Dewey’s day, formal education was designed to prepare students for the economy of the Industrial Age. Today, globalization has made our world smaller, but it has also made the importance of that broad sense of education much greater.

Today, we have amplified expectations. To be ready for college and career means to be ready for the full range of postsecondary opportunities that await all high school graduates.

New Hampshire’s definition says, “Evidence and experience indicate that the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and career are greatly similar, and that all graduates will need some form of postsecondary education or training to succeed during their careers … This same set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions is also vital for student success in terms of citizenship, in addition to college and career readiness, including the ability to contribute and succeed in our increasingly diverse, democratic, global society” (U.S. Department of Education, 2013).

Some state definitions of college and career readiness include cultural understanding, ethical decision-making, integrity, social and emotional competencies, problem solving, critical thinking, and personal, community, and political responsibility. Many, though not all, also include a baseline of required academic knowledge.

Consider these excerpts from the definitions used in Hawaii, Oregon, and Massachusetts. All require a foundation of academic performance, but each includes distinct elements that reflect their state priorities.

Graphic: State definitions of college and career readiness

Parents, teachers, schools, districts, states, and especially students all want schools that prepare graduates to thrive in the 21st century. Too often, political controversy obscures the goals we all hold in common. Perhaps these college and career readiness definitions—touchstones for state planning and accountability—can also provide a common ground for a new generation to, as John Dewey wrote, “share in a common life.”

Anne Mishkind is a research associate at AIR