Increasing college readiness is fundamentally an instructional challenge that will require developing classroom environments that deeply engage students in acquiring the skills and knowledge they will need to gain access to and succeed in college. Supporting this shift within the classroom will require a serious investment to increase the capacity of high schools by providing teachers and principals the development opportunities to enhance their instructional practice.
In addition to improving instruction, another key role for policy is to help districts and schools translate teacher and student learning and better academic preparation into concrete improvements in college access and success. From our work in Chicago, we believe that gains in academic preparation will not necessarily translate into college access if high schools do not provide better structure and support for students in the college search, college application, and financial aid processes and if those schools fail to build a strong college-going culture in their buildings. Too many students who aspire to attend four-year colleges fall through the cracks, not taking the steps necessary to apply to and enroll in four-year colleges. Students and their families need to believe that their high aspirations are attainable, and in part this belief is created when students feel supported and capable of achieving their goals.
It is also critical that the federal government and states help high schools focus on college choice and encourage students to attend those colleges that offer high levels of support and environments conducive to student learning, particularly for underrepresented minorities. College, for many students, is a path to a good job. These students do not see colleges as an array of educational institutions that differ in their quality and offerings. One role for high schools is to provide guidance to students so that they understand these differences and understand that different institutions provide very different probabilities of attaining a degree.
It is also clear that better sorting among colleges is not a viable strategy for the nation. There is a significant need for research and policy attention in this area—investigating the determinants of disparities in institutional graduation rates and finding what supports in colleges are needed to improve these rates. The efforts in high schools to improve college readiness will not be enough to close the gap between college aspirations and attainment if the institutional characteristics that shape college completion rates are not understood. The bottom line is that four-year colleges and universities need to become part of the strategy for improving college graduation rates.
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