The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Many Components and Concepts Underly College Readiness and Culture

College readiness is an elusive and multi-faceted concept that has no standard definition. Consequently, there is confusion among terms like “college readiness”, “college culture”, “college preparedness”, etc. This paper will provide some arbitrary definitions based on my judgments from the most appropriate literature. The overall design starts with secondary school student readiness attributes and then moves to cultures in secondary schools that build readiness. It ends with analysis of measuring dimensions of readiness. My themes are how complex readiness is and how many dimensions need to come together in order to embody and help produce readiness.

David T. Conley has the broadest view of college readiness, so it is the best starting point (Conley, 2007). He breaks readiness down to four integrated components:

1. Habits of Mind – patterns of intellectual behavior that lead to the development of cognitive strategies and capabilities necessary for college work. Among these are: intellectual openness, inquisitiveness, analysis, reasoning, interpretation, precision and problem solving. Multiple choice tests cannot measure all these elements.
2. Overarching Academic Skills – writing, research, English, math, science, social studies, world languages, etc. These include skills such as: evaluate source material, synthesize, access information from a variety of locations, and written argumentation.
3. Academic Behavior – metacognition, mastery of study skills, time management, note taking, communication with teacher and advisers.
4. Conceptual Skills and Awareness – this is sometimes called “college knowledge” and encompasses teamwork, communication with others, understanding of college admission/placement, college options, financial aid applications, testing, college cultures, and expectations of postsecondary education.

College Culture in High Schools

It is a challenge for secondary schools to create, nurture and build student college readiness, but college culture can be an important determinant of all four components of college readiness. The Center for Educational Outreach, University of California has synthesized much of the research on college going culture (https://outreach.

In schools where most disadvantaged students go to college, certain common factors are obvious. These schools create a college culture that all students and their families experience. Where such a culture exists, all students are prepared for a full range of postsecondary options through structural, motivational, and experiential college preparatory opportunities. In these schools…
• School leadership is committed to building a college culture
• All school personnel provide a consistent message to students that supports their quest for a college preparatory K-12 experience
• All counselors are college counselors
• Counselors, teachers and families are partners in preparing students for college.

Schools with a “college culture” usually exhibit most or all of the following Nine Critical Principals of a College Culture:

College Talk: Clear, ongoing communication among students, teachers administrators and families about what it takes to get to college
Clear Expectation: Explicit, clear-defined goals, and communication in ways that make them part of the culture of the school
Information and Resources: Comprehensive, up-to-date college information and resources that are easily accessible by all students, families and school personnel
Comprehensive Counseling Model: View of counseling that makes most student interactions with counseling staff opportunities for college counseling
Testing and curriculum: Information about and access to “gatekeeping” tests (PSAT, SAT, etc.) and courses (A-G, AP, etc. for all students
Faculty Involvement: Informed, active participation from school faculty in the creation and maintenance of a college culture
Family Involvement: Meaningful engagement on the part of family members in the process of building a college culture
College Partnerships: Active links in a variety of forms between the school and local colleges and universities
Articulation: Ongoing coordination between counselors and teachers about college access and success


Clifford Adelman, The Toolbox Revisited (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).
Consortium on Chicago School Research, From High School to the Future: Potholes on the Road to College (Chicago:University of Chicago, 2008).
David T. Conley, College Readiness (Eugene, Oregon: Educational Policy Improvement Center, 2007).
David T. Conley, “Reference Courses”, personal communication.

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