The Problem of College Readiness

reviewed by Mary Beth Schaefer - October 26, 2015

coverTitle: The Problem of College Readiness
Author(s): William G. Tierney, Julia C. Duncheon (Eds.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 1438457235, Pages: 232, Year: 2015
Search for book at

The title of Tierney and Duncheon’s edited book is fairly risky: Framing the issue of college readiness as a “problem” portends yet another a sad and frustrating read about the state of education. So why read this book? Because as the authors in this volume show, the problem of college readiness matters a lot to underrepresented, first generation college students. It also matters to educators, policy makers, and the economic future of the United States. In reading this book we commit, in a sense, to becoming part of the solution.

The introductory chapter, written by co-editor Julia Duncheon, tries to build a common understanding of college readiness from disparate definitions. Duncheon dives into meanings and descriptions both shallow and deep, and surfaces with this: “College readiness,” she writes, “is the preparation required to enroll in college and persist to graduation without need for remediation” (p. 25). This definition serves two purposes: First, recent research has shown us that readiness for college life and work is more than an SAT score or a high school GPA. But how much more? And how much do intangibles like self-esteem and social capital matter? By adding the idea of “persistence” to the definition of college readiness, Duncheon asserts that these intangibles matter a great deal. The second purpose of the definition is to give the book’s other authors a common perspective of readiness. The authors, all of whom reside and work in California, present their research, programs, and findings through the lens of this encompassing definition, demonstrating the multifaceted nature of problems related to college readiness and explicating the struggle to find or construct solutions. Although the studies and exemplars in this eight-chapter book tend to illustrate the experiences of students in California, the authors try to make broader connections to the rest of the country.

Part One of the book, comprised of three chapters, takes a bold look forward by taking a broad look back. Duncheon’s first chapter creates parameters and guidelines for understanding college readiness. She explicates the “nuances” of competencies around readiness and defines three main categories: cognitive academic factors (e.g., content knowledge, SAT or ACT scores, high school GPA), non-cognitive academic factors (e.g., motivation, self-efficacy, study skills, goal-setting), and campus integration factors (e.g., college culture, financial aid literacy, self-esteem and self-awareness). Although some may take issue with categorizing factors such as self-awareness as “non-cognitive,” Duncheon separates them out in order to demonstrate how they have been treated and assessed. “Cognitive factors” are measurable, discernible facets of readiness—and unsurprisingly what policy makers, test creators, administrators and college admission committees look at for guidance and information about students. The fact that “non-cognitive” factors also play a tremendous role in readiness is undervalued in part due to difficulties determining and gauging the social, cultural, personal and emotional factors that figure into readiness.

In the remaining chapters of Part One, the authors explore the treatment of college readiness factors. In Chapter Two, Almeida takes a historical perspective on how—and why—college readiness has been recognized and defined. Traditionally, readiness was conceived solely on cognitive aspects. For example, readiness in the earliest colleges in the United States was measured by proficiencies in Greek and Latin. Almeida traces the development of a growing interest in the role that students’ study habits and attitudes play in their college achievement to increase the underrepresented groups entering higher education. In the next chapter, Rodríguez delves into the history of policies regarding access to college among the “least ready,” and although institutions of higher education have increased access through state and federal policies, the least ready remain the most likely to leave college early. Legislation by itself does not provide the kinds of interventions needed to mitigate the challenges, both cognitive and non-cognitive, of those “least ready.”

Part Two of the book is titled “Using Theory, Policy, and Practice to Analyze a State Response” and is comprised of four chapters that delve into the three facets of college readiness identified in the first chapter, showing how they overlap in ways that are crucial for college readiness and persistence among underrepresented students. Almeida takes up the implications of non-cognitive academic factors in his study of 33 underrepresented students. His study highlights the importance of providing quality college resources while students are still in high school in order to facilitate low-income students’ social and cultural capital related to “campus integration” factors. In Chapter Five, Garcia takes up factors of readiness related to academics and describes California State University’s (CSU) Early Assessment Program—a focused effort to reduce the need to remediate incoming college students by identifying them as “not college-ready” in English and or math while still in high school. Garcia argues that identifying high school seniors as unready for college level work is not enough—they also need focused academic interventions in order to avoid taking remedial courses in college. In Chapter Six, Duncheon examines issues related to students who are underrepresented in college and overrepresented in remedial courses. Specifically, she highlights CSU’s English Early Start Program. The program requires students who have been admitted to CSU but who have not demonstrated proficiency to take a remedial course in reading and writing in the summer before starting college courses. Interestingly, this study focuses on university faculty’s—not students’—perceptions of this remediation reform, and although it is a fascinating study, its emphasis on faculty perspectives felt a little too narrow for the purposes of this book. The last chapter in this section is Rodríguez’s study of 25 underprepared students enrolled in community college. Here we get a close, upfront look at how the three interrelated facets of college readiness play out in the lives of students.

Tierney writes the culminating chapter that constitutes the third part of the book. In “The Way Forward, Looking Back,” Tierney resists weaving the chapters to demonstrate the coherence of the text. Rather, he weaves the salient issues addressed in the chapters in order to give coherence to what is really important about this book—its message. He asserts that the issues behind college readiness rest in equity: “Even after public land grants democratized institutions there was a clear divide between the haves and have-nots. And the least ready have always been the have-nots” (p. 202). Tierney suggests some ideas to begin constructing a solution: increasing coordination among K-12 and institutions of higher learning so that parents, making teachers and students aware of what they need to know and do in order to be ready for college; creating clear parameters as to what is meant by college readiness; understanding and cultivating the kinds of non-cognitive variables that impact readiness and persistence; and implementing career readiness interventions so that students are aware of their postsecondary options.

This book is important because it helps us wrap our heads, hands, and hearts around the idea of college readiness. The authors charge into broader notions of readiness, tracing its history, connecting policy and practice, evaluating existing programs, and presenting studies that illustrate the problems and issues that beset underrepresented students. By defining the problems associated with college readiness and illustrating its facets in vivid portraits and descriptions, this book shows us what we know about college readiness, illuminates what we need to know about college readiness, and why issues of equity, justice and the economic health of the United States matter in college readiness. Looking back, perhaps now we can create specific ways to move forward.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 26, 2015 ID Number: 18212, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 8:24:57 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review