Beyond Academics: Arming Students with Broader Competencies for College Success

Published apr. 12, 2017


What does it take to prepare our high school students for success in college? Two decades of school improvement efforts—from imposing more standards, testing, and accountability to increasing student participation in advanced coursework, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate—suggest a prevailing wisdom: College readiness is primarily a matter of mastering course content and academic skills.


But as a recent Jobs for the Future report, Beyond Academic Readiness: Building a Broader Range of Skills for Success in College, argues, this view does not adequately take into account the so-called “noncognitive” dimension of college readiness; that is, the importance of students graduating from high school having become independent, self-directed learners ready to build strong identities as college students.


Academic achievement, as measured by grades and test scores, are certainly important for college success. It is important to note, however, that even grades reflect more than academic knowledge and skills alone. They also reflect whether students attend class regularly, complete their homework, actively participate in discussions, and perform well on assignments and tests. Grades tell us about student behavior, motivation, engagement in learning, the noncognitive factors that serve students well in college, in addition to how much knowledge students may have absorbed.


The report’s authors Jenny Nagaoka and Matthew A. Holsapple of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, note that the journey from high school to higher education is complicated, and for most students, a major life transition. Each step—learning about college options, completing applications, applying for financial aid, selecting a school to attend, choosing appropriate classes, adapting to a new social environment, and learning how to manage and juggle priorities—can present significant hurdles to earning a college degree or credential. For first-generation college students, who don’t have the social networks or guidance from family members who have completed the journey themselves, the experience can be especially challenging and full of potential pitfalls.


Currently, one of the biggest hurdles is the fact that schools and colleges do precious little to help students make the transition. There is no good reason to leave so much to students to figure out, especially when not doing so can lead to them dropping out of college.


One important solution is more closely aligning 12th-grade experiences with what students will encounter in college. The best examples of this are dual enrollment and early college initiatives. These approaches show the most evidence of success, largely because they help increase students’ personal and social integration into the college environment, which research says makes a significant difference. We need to push colleges and universities to collaborate with schools to provide students with more access to these programs.


Dual enrollment enables high school students to take college courses for college credit, demystifying higher education by exposing young people to the norms, expectations, and responsibilities of college participation.


Dual enrollment is a core strategy of early college high school, which allows students to complete substantial college credit or a two-year associate’s degree, for free, at the same time as their high school diploma. Early colleges typically provide intensive academic and personal support services to prepare their students to begin college classes as high school juniors.


Similarly, schools need to do more to introduce students to college, community, and cultural resources to make them reflect on their beliefs about identity, citizenship, and their participation in the community. This entails setting up structured day trips for high school students to visit parts of their city or region that many have never seen, including college campuses, cultural institutions, and local landmarks.


Other approaches, such as requiring an internship or apprenticeship experience, or a “capstone” 12th-grade research and writing project, also are effective in exposing students to the demands of college and the world that awaits them.


The precise nature of the challenges students will face as they enter college cannot be fully anticipated in grade 12. But we can cultivate the competencies and mindsets that will help them build the sense of agency needed to carve their own path through college: developing a clear sense of their academic potential, viewing themselves as someone who belongs in college socially and academically, and believing that their success depends on their own ability, choices, and actions rather than on external forces.


To learn more about how secondary and postsecondary education can work together to smooth student transitions from high school to college, see the full JFF series on rethinking 12th grade.


Joel Vargas is vice president of JFF’s school and learning designs team.