College and Career Readiness: Clarifying the Connection

Stephen F. Hamilton#
Department of Human Development
Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research
Cornell University
#This essay is based on a paper written by the author for the New York State Department of Education with William Symonds and Pradeep Kotamraju.

New York State’s Board of Regents has adopted the goal of making all high school graduates college and career ready. The combination connotes opportunity and capacity without implying destiny. When we aim to make young people ready, we allow for their personal preferences and the twists and turns they may take along their paths to adulthood. Putting the college and career readiness together is important because some young people go directly from secondary school into the workforce without college and others who enroll in college will almost all go on to careers.

Is preparing students for college and career readiness one goal, or two? Some advocates assert that students who are ready for college are, as a result, also ready for careers. They correctly point out that nearly all jobs that pay enough to support a family and offer prospects for continued learning and advancement require some form of post-secondary education.

If we assume that career readiness is closely related to college readiness, we have a long way to go. By definition, high school graduates are college ready if they can pass credit-bearing college courses without having to enroll first in non-credit developmental or remedial courses. ACT (2011) found that only 25 percent of high school graduates were prepared to take college-level courses in English, reading, math, and science. The gap between college enrollment and college readiness is demonstrated by the proportion of college students who never earn a degree or credential: 56 percent of those enrolled in four-year colleges, 30 percent in two-year colleges (Symonds et al., p. 6, & Figure 1, p. 3).

Does college readiness really equal career readiness? The Career Readiness Partner Council concluded that in addition to academic proficiency, a career-ready person must achieve a “level of technical-skill proficiency aligned to (their) chosen career field and pathway.” They must also master what are sometimes called “21st century skills,” such as clear and effective communications; critical thinking; effective use of technology; and the ability work productively in teams. This same combination of academic with technical, personal and social competencies has been identified with career readiness by several other reports (Lippman, Atienza, Rivers, & Keith, 2008; ConnectEd, 2012; Stone & Lewis, 2012; Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991).

After reviewing many different versions of college and career readiness and a wide range of research on the topic, a panel of the National Research Council (NRC, 2012) labeled these three categories of competencies cognitive, intra-personal, and inter-personal. Cognitive competencies include: cognitive processes and strategies (e.g., critical thinking, problem solving); knowledge; and creativity. Intra-personal competencies include: intellectual openness (e.g., flexibility, continuous learning); work ethic/conscientiousness (e.g., initiative, grit, productivity); and positive core self-evaluation (e.g., physical and psychological health). Inter-personal competencies include teamwork and collaboration (e.g., communication, cooperation, and empathy); and leadership. They noted that these are not really new competencies; they have been valuable for centuries. However, these competencies are now needed in a wider range of occupations as relatively low-skill farm and factory jobs have receded.

For all their limitations, schools are better at teaching cognitive knowledge than at teaching character. Much more research has been done on both promoting and measuring cognitive knowledge. But research confirms that character can be taught (Tough, 2010). The research on this topic converges on the value of experiential and project-based learning, especially for intra-personal and inter-personal competencies, but for cognitive competencies as well (Bransford, Brown, Cocking, Donovan, & Pellegrino, 2000; Hoffman, 2011; NRC, 2004 & 2012).

College readiness can be defined as mastery of cognitive competencies that are measured by standardized tests, notably knowledge, but also some that are not measured easily, including problem solving and creativity. Moreover, there is growing recognition that being academically prepared is only part of college success. Persistence, time management, goal-directedness, and other intra-personal competencies are at least as important. However it is defined, college readiness is necessary to career readiness, but not sufficient. Contrary to conventional perceptions, career readiness is a higher standard than college readiness. It includes mastery of some specific workplace skills and of generic workplace competencies that the best schools, the strongest families, and the most supportive communities teach. Helping all youth become college and career ready means committing to teaching the whole range of competencies they need to become productive workers, active citizens, and nurturing family members.

ACT (2011). The condition of college and career readiness. Accessed at:

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., Cocking, R. R., Donovan, M. S., & Pellegrino, J. W. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Career Readiness Partner Council (no date). Building blocks for change: What it means to be career ready. Accessed at:

ConnectEd (2012). College and career readiness: What do we Mean? A proposed framework. Revised draft version 1.2: April 12, 2012. Accessed at:

Hoffman, N. (2011). Schooling in the workplace: How six of the world’s best vocational education systems prepare young people for jobs and life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University press.

Lippman, L., Atienza, A., Rivers, A., & Keith, J. (2008). College and workplace readiness: A developmental perspective. Washington, DC: ChildTrends. Accessed at:

National Research Council (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn. Board on Children, Youth, and Families, Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills; Center for Education, Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Stone, J. R., III, & Lewis, M. V. (2012). College and career ready in the 21st century: Making high school matter. New York: Teachers College Press.

Symonds, W. C., Schwartz, R. B., & Ferguson, R. (2011). Pathways to prosperity: Meeting the challenge of preparing young Americans for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education. Accessed at:

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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