College and Career Readiness: Definition for the 21st Century

21st Century College and Career Readiness

What does it mean to be “college and career ready”?

It means you’re ready for the world: College- and career-ready high school graduates have the skills, knowledge and abilities needed to succeed in life, whether attending college or starting a job.

This readiness is based on a larger, community-focused approach that offers students the academic preparation, skills training, life planning, and social support and resources, beginning as children and continuing through adulthood.

Why have 21st century skills become such a focus for educators, parents, employers and policy makers? The world has changed, and the educational experience hasn’t kept pace with the demands in a competitive, knowledge-based, technology-driven society.

Here are some core questions to keep in mind as you explore 21st century college and career readiness.

College and career ready in the 21st century

Traditional definitions of college and career readiness allude to the skills employers expect from their workforce. These skills include academic and behavioral knowledge, also known as cognitive and non-cognitive abilities:

  • Cognitive: academic proficiency in reading, writing, math, science, etc.
  • Non-cognitive: values, beliefs, attitudes, social and cultural awareness

Definitions of 21st century college and career readiness, however, expand beyond the traditional cognitive and non-cognitive skill set. Because of the unprecedented growth and use of technology in everyday business functions, the 21st century workforce must develop “digital literacy” and be willing to engage in lifelong learning outside the classroom. The resulting interconnectedness of organizations worldwide also places greater emphasis on cultivating the skills needed to compete in a growing global economy.

In essence, our modern-day college- and career-readiness definition augments the traditional components of cognitive and emotional intelligences with the digital and technological demands of a connected world. For instance, tomorrow’s workers will research and collaborate in an online environment, analyzing, synthesizing and creating knowledge.

Does college ready and career ready really mean the same thing?

Some thought leaders believe the two terms can be used interchangeably, while others urge for more distinct definitions.

Achieve and the Educational Policy Improvement Center, two prominent education reform organizations, acknowledge noteworthy differences between the two. But they also find enough convergence and overlap of the skills and knowledge needed for success to not warrant a purposeful separation.

On the other hand, the Association for Career and Technical Education refutes the interchangeability, contending that “college ready” is too often associated only with academic skills, which is just one component of “career readiness.”

Despite the differing views, the core values of college and career readiness help drive the changes needed to enhance educational and workforce goals and policies.

Framework for college and career readiness

The structures used to identify college- and career-ready individuals are as varied as the definitions themselves. What is common among the various frameworks, though, is the idea that academic and content knowledge—the traditional standards by which most students are measured—are only a fraction of the equation.

Here is a synopsis of the components of college and career readiness.

  • Academic and content knowledge comprise core subject area competencies and the intended applications:
    • Proficiency in English and language arts, literacy, mathematics, science and social sciences
    • Capacity to process, retain and apply content knowledge in relevant situations
    • Digital and technological savvy; understanding what resources are available for use, and when
  • Cognitive and higher-order thinking strategies refer to the processing and interpreting of information:
    • Independence in formulating hypotheses, critical thinking, problem solving, and reasoning
    • Ability to identify, analyze and evaluate differing or conflicting viewpoints
  • Social and emotional intelligences encompass a wide range of skill sets, often referred to as “soft” skills:
    • Strong sense of self-awareness and self-management
    • Social awareness; culturally sensitive system of values, beliefs and attitudes
  • College and career preparedness include resources to inform and engage students about life after high school:
    • Academic programming/sequencing for college-level coursework
    • Exploration tools used to navigate roadmaps to higher education and career options
    • Knowledge of college and career requirements, as well as financial support opportunities
  • Employability and life skills include the wide net of skills desired by employers and expected of all citizens:
    • Self-directed lifelong learners capable of ownership and accountability
    • Ability to adapt communication toward a specific audience, task and/or purpose
    • Time management, collaboration and teamwork, organization and intellectual openness
    • Civic engagement and responsibilities of all citizens

This shared set of goals allows parents, educators and policy makers to better align college- and career-readiness efforts toward the expected skill set of the 21st century workforce.

How do we measure achievement toward the framework?

To truly gauge the effectiveness of the frameworks, benchmarks of success must be established. Some goals, such as those found within content knowledge and cognitive strategies areas, can be measured objectively through course completion requirements and standardized testing. Other goals, such as socio-emotional intelligence and life skills, require a more nuanced, subjective approach to evaluation.

Here are a few methods used to measure success for the various components of college and career readiness.

  • Academic and content knowledge
    • Completion of base credit requirements in each subject matter; grade point averages
    • Completion of advanced and/or college-credit granting coursework; advanced placement courses and exams
  • Cognitive and higher-order thinking strategies
    • Standardized tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the American College Testing (ACT) assessments
  • Social and emotional intelligences
    • Freestanding social and emotional learning standards, such as the Kansas Social, Emotional, and Character Development Model Standards and Pennsylvania’s Standards for Student Interpersonal Skills
    • Trust and reliability of school and academic counselors and workplace managers
  • College and career preparedness
    • Prevalence and use of district- and community-based college and career centers
    • Number of college applications completed
  • Employability and life skills
    • Performance on career and portfolio assessments
    • Participation and engagement rates in civic duties, such as voting
    • Attainment of postsecondary degrees and/or industry-recognized credentials

Can we fully trust assessment results?

Though assessments and benchmarks can help quantify and measure success, it’s important to remember some fallacies surrounding the measurements. For example, the efficacy of standardized testing has been debated since its onset, with some valuing the cognitive skill set needed to interpret and answer complex questions, while others blast its nature of rote memorization and regurgitation.

Another—and possibly more significant—factor is the availability and accessibility of resources: Research clearly indicates students exposed to a wider collection of social, academic and career resources achieve to a greater extent in and out of school.

Shared responsibilities of teaching and learning

To be college and career ready means more than just eligibility to pursue a four-year degree or find marginal employment. College and career readiness signifies a student’s capacity to succeed in whatever pursuit he or she desires.

Given the complexities around the various components and levels of college and career readiness, the responsibilities cannot belong to one group alone—responsibilities must be shared among all parties involved, including parents, educators, businesses and organizations, and policy makers. Partnerships among these various stakeholders allow for a collaborative approach to developing and implementing the right strategies for the students they serve.

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