Redefining College Readiness: Part 2, Content Knowledge

One of the single most important predictors of college success is the rigor of courses taken during high school.

Working at a collegiate high school, we often discuss how we can best prepare students to enter into college and the workforce, maybe a better term here could also be called “life ready”. As discussed in Part 1 , the idea of college readiness has been defined often by the grades a student earns and what score they receive on a standardized test. While these measures are standard throughout our educational system, more and more secondary and post-secondary schools are looking at other ways to define college readiness that best meets or showcases student’s needs.

I have spent over a year researching college readiness and what it means for students. My two driving questions have been; When do we know a student is college readyand how to do we, as educators and parents, get them there?

I have been drawn to the research of David Conley, one of the foremost researchers on college readiness. He defines college readiness into four major categories; cognitive strategies, content knowledge, academic behaviors, and contextual skills and knowledge. A fifth area included in the research that is of  importance are non-cognitive student academic attributes such as motivation, performance, self-efficacy, goals, perceived social support, and social involvement . For the rest of these series, I want to talk about each skill set and what it means.

These five skills are integral parts of what college readiness is as a whole. None of these behaviors are mutually exclusive from one another; on the contrary they interact with each other extensively to allow students to meet various academic and social demands. For example, while the student may understand the content knowledge, a lack of time management, study skills, and motivation does not prepare them for the test.

Defining Content Knowledge

Content knowledge needed for college readiness include overarching academic skills in reading and writing, and core academic subjects knowledge and skills in English, mathematics, science, social studies, world languages and the arts. One of the single most important predictors of college success is the rigor of courses taken during high school. In particular, courses like Algebra 1, are major predictors if students will be college ready as early as ninth grade year. A Californian study found that only an estimated six percent of students, who did not complete Algebra I by the end of ninth grade year, completed the necessary courses for college by the end of senior year (Finkelstein & Fong, 2008). 

Colleges have started using this measure of looking at if a student is college prepared, but many families and teachers simply do not know it. Most students and parents think it is the overall or cumulative grade point average (GPA) that is important, that is actually not true. Many universities use something called a Recalculated GPA (I wrote about this here) that uses only core classes a student has taken.

Here is a direct excerpt from the University of South Florida on their admission factors (

USF Academic Success Predictors

Our data indicates that applicants meeting certain criteria are more likely to be successful at the University of South Florida, particularly in the freshman year. You are encouraged to use these predictors as a guideline to prepare for college-level work, not just for gaining admission to USF. When we review your application for admission, we will reward you for each academic success predictor below that you demonstrate:

·         AP, IB or AICE coursework (3 or more courses)

·         One or more math courses at the Pre-Calculus, Calculus, or higher math level.

·         Three or more natural science courses (two with lab)

·         Additional foreign language course(s) beyond two sequential years of the same language

·         College level dual enrollment coursework (2 or more courses)

·         A postsecondary GPA of 3.0 or higher in all dual enrollment coursework attempted

These predictors, coupled with your GPA, test scores and other potential admission factors are integral to USF's evaluative process for freshman admissions.

Becoming College Ready

In the end, we want to know how a student can be college ready. One of the first major skills is for a student to have a large breadth and depth of content knowledge, with particular interests in core content knowledge. Areas like math, social studies, sciences, foreign languages, and English should be a focus while in high school in order to be college ready. Students should consider taking on additional coursework in this area, and as noted above by University of South Florida, some more rigorous levels in order to stretch a student’s thinking and skill set. Students are often scared by receiving a lower grade in a more rigorous course, but taking these risks of harder, more detailed work is beneficial and encouraged from a post-secondary standpoint. Students should be asked to dig deeper into their content work by doing deeper analysis of problems and of breaking apart text to understand, deduce, and create something new. 

Dr. Amanda SterkComment