College Readiness Is More Than Academics

Donald was a smart boy with potential. He graduated from high school with honors and had ambitions to succeed, but sadly he never made it to college. Donald's problem was not one of academic deficiency. He didn't get into trouble. He didn't mess with drugs or break the law. Simply put, Donald had no support at home. His mother was an alcoholic who referred to Donald as her "problem child" because he reminded her of his father. Even from the beginning, his fate was tainted.

Whereas most parents would be thrilled to have a son with such drive and determination, Donald's mother offered no guidance into navigating the real world beyond high school.  She provided very little in terms of mentoring and supporting her son. In short, Donald's motivation to succeed was overshadowed by his lack of parental involvement and his inability to take on the real world challenges associated with college.

College readiness is a top priority of the Obama Administration but what does it really mean to be "college ready"? It's not simply enough to prepare our kids academically; we must also prepare them with the life skills to successfully navigate the complex college processes associated with admission and financial aid, assist them in developing an understanding of college culture, and the ability to maintain adult relationships.

You see, while it is important to graduate with a diploma, high school students must also be prepared to face all of the challenges associated with taking that next step. Donald, like so many other kids, lacked the parental support, teacher encouragement, and personal resilience he needed to embrace college. In fact, even some supportive parents are intimidated by the college application and financial aid grind.

More often than not, the kids who attend college have supportive mentors in their lives that instill in them not only the importance of education, but also the necessary values such as persistence and patience and also how to navigate through the college admission process. Every child deserves a mentor. And, every student deserves a chance to enter college with the skill set needed to be successful.

In the 1980s, the United States led the world among 25- to 34-year-old degree holders. Today, we rank just 12th -- with only about half of students enrolling in higher education ultimately earning degrees.  And the U.S. ranks just 21st in high school completion and 15th in college completion.
Folks, the truth is in the numbers. These statistics are proof that we have got to do a better job at preparing our young students for the future challenges associated with not just college, but life.
Enrolling students in higher education is one challenge, but making sure they can thrive academically once they get there is another issue we've got to be willing to address. We have to do much better job of aligning high school and college curriculums so that more students leave K-12 ready to do college work. We've got to prepare them through AP courses, career counseling, and on the job training. We've got to remove the training wheels and set our students in motion to have an academic experience founded on successful habits and skills. We must challenge them, encourage them, and provide them with the tools they need to succeed.

For students like Donald, who are not getting the mentoring they need at home, there is the critical relationships that are formed within the schools. Between teachers, coaches, and principals, students should have the opportunity to reach out for assistance from these educational leaders. However, at the average high school, there is only one guidance counselor for every 457 students, which means students typically get around twenty minutes of counseling a year. Today's guidance counselors lack adequate time needed to advise students, assist with the applications and selection process, and answer important questions. These guidance counselors may be a student's only opportunity to engage in a conversation about their future.

From filling out applications, to getting transcripts and recommendations, let's admit the whole process can be overwhelming. Our kids must be taught how to navigate all of the challenges associated with college. Together, as leaders, parents, and mentors, we must teach our kids that college is, in fact, a realistic option. 

Yes, Donald was resilient and smart. He transcended all that he had to endure, studied hard and graduated from high school. Ultimately, he made the decision to enlist in the United States Army instead of college. Serving his country is indeed something he should be very proud of. Though I can't help but wonder what would have become of this bright student's future if only he had been prepared for the real world challenges associated with applying for, entering, and succeeding in higher education.