College and career readiness: A pathway, not a tightrope

Four young adult students walking across the grass on a college campus

Part of the mission in the Center for College & Career Success is to identify pathways for students to gain the knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, and dispositions to be fully prepared for success in college and careers when they leave high school. Research shows that college and career readiness is multifaceted and that students will have a better chance of success if we start them on the pathway well before they begin high school.


Our students need much more than academic support along the pathway to college and career readiness.

There are several good examples of programs and resources that promote the idea that the journey to college and career readiness begins early. For example, the Arizona Department of Education has a checklist called My Roadtrip to College & Career which prompts students and their families to engage in activities to raise awareness and readiness for college. In kindergarten, the checklist includes activities such as, “I explain in words and pictures what I want to be when I grow up,” “I will talk to my teacher about what a goal is,” and “I will set a goal with my family and work to achieve it.” Another innovative example is a board game on college readiness called College Ready: The Game that is geared for students as early as elementary school. The object of the game is to be the first to graduate high school with the most scholarship offers.

While it is important to instill the habits and dispositions that will support students’ journey along the pathway to college and career readiness and success, it is also important to make sure that students do not feel pressure that if they don’t check off every item on the checklist they will be left behind.  As a parent of a 6th grader and 9th grader, I am very aware of the pressures placed on students today and the tendency to think of college and career readiness as a competition rather than a journey, a tightrope rather than a pathway.

When my older son began high school this fall, one of the first things he was told is that “everything counts.”  He is already setting his sights on some very selective and highly competitive colleges and is feeling the pressure to build his resume so that he can attend the college of his dreams. I want him to have high expectations for himself and work hard to achieve his goals, but I sometimes worry that the pressures to achieve will be counter-productive.

Denise Pope of Stanford University School of Education asks, Should self-esteem and happiness come before accomplishment, or accomplishment before self-esteem?  Perhaps success might be a delicate balance between the two that we each must define for ourselves and then evaluate on a regular basis?” How do we strike this delicate balance? We live in a very competitive society and know that in order to succeed, our children will need to be hard working, goal-directed and ambitious and will need to face a certain level of stress.

The author of this blog suggests that rather than asking students to “stress less” we should focus on helping them to “stress better.” Eustress is positive stress that boosts motivation, focus, and energy. Research shows that people who are confident in their abilities are more likely to interpret difficult tasks as challenging rather than threatening, therefore experiencing eustress rather than distress. People with lower self-efficacy are more prone to distress because these same challenges lead to anxiety, and they tend to feel more responsible for their failures than their successes.[1]

The bottom line is our students need much more than academic support along the pathway to college and career readiness. We want to support students to acquire healthy aspirations and coping mechanisms for the challenges they will face along the way. To do this, we can help foster things like grit, self-efficacy, and a growth mindset to help minimize students’ distress and maximize their eustress. We want students to stay on the pathway, and be able to steer them back on if they get off track, but we don’t want to turn the pathway into a tightrope, where if students fall off, the drop is steep.



About the Author
Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer Kobrin, Ed.D.

Jennifer L. Kobrin is a former research scientist at Pearson whose primary role was developing and undertaking a research agenda to explore the promise of learning progressions for improving assessment, instruction, and teacher development. Dr. Kobrin was previously a research scientist at the College Board where she led research efforts to collect evidence of the validity of the SAT, and conducted research on factors related to college readiness and college success. She has co-authored several book chapters on educational assessment and validity, and her work has been published in Educational and Psychological Measurement, Educational Assessment, and Assessing Writing. Dr. Kobrin is an active member of the National Council on Measurement in Education, the American Educational Research Association, and the Northeastern Educational Research Association. She holds a doctorate in Educational Statistics and Measurement from Rutgers University, and a master’s degree in Educational Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from Boston College. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferKobrin


Work Cited

[1] Self-Efficacy: Thought Control of Action (Edited by Ralf Schwarzer), Routledge.