Policy brief

Improving College Readiness

A Research Summary and Implications for Practice
Improving College Readiness
Michal Kurlaender
University of California, Davis
Sherrie Reed Bennett
University of California, Davis
Alexandria Hurtt
University of California, Davis


Given the importance of a college degree for both individual and societal economic prosperity, policymakers and educators are focused on strengthening the path to college beyond college entry. In this report, we synthesize the existing literature on four factors key to educational attainment—aspirations and beliefs, academic preparation, knowledge and information, and fortitude and resilience—and the implications of each.

  • Aspirations and beliefs—the belief that college is possible and integral to educational success. By establishing strong college-going cultures, positive role models, and practices that extol and encourage a growth mindset, schools can promote college aspirations and college identity from an early age, an important precursor to cultivating self-efficacy.
  • Academic preparation—the skills one develops in order to engage with college- level work are dependent on a student’s course of study. While students typically self-select into a course of study, many structural dimensions constrain this choice, resulting in persistence inequality in educational pathways.
    Current efforts have focused on addressing disparities in curricular offerings, particularly in college gateway courses, but more work is needed to address differences among schools in academic rigor and disparate access to advanced coursework within schools.
  • Knowledge and information—information is key to decision-making in the college-going process; however, students from low-income backgrounds and those who are the first in their families to attend college tend to have less access to quality information. To remedy this, information interventions have been particularly effective, but studies have also shown notable differences among schools in their efforts to guide students through the steps for collegiate access and success.
  • Fortitude and resilience—an intrinsic set of social-emotional competencies and self-management skills necessary for individuals to engage more fully with academic content, navigate college and workplace processes, and persist through challenges. Although difficult to measure and disentangle the direct impact of these skills, research coalesces on their importance for future success and small-scale interventions show promise in their development through authentic pre-collegiate experiences, such as college-level courses, capstone projects, and internships, among others.

College readiness is therefore a dynamic process between choices, actions, and beliefs bounded by structural constraints in opportunities often at the school level. Given that schools play a large role in this process, there is much for schools to consider in developing students’ skills and dispositions for successfully navigating the pathways to and through college. The conclusion of our report highlights several frameworks currently used to monitor key indicators along students’ educational trajectories in order to foster an affirmative college-going culture, strengthen academic preparation, improve college knowledge and information, and cultivate stronger resilience for success in college.

Suggested citationKurlaender, M., Reed, S., & Hurtt, A. (2019, August). Improving college readiness: A research summary and implications for practice [Policy brief, report]. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://edpolicyinca.org/publications/improving-college-readiness-research-summary-and-implications-practice