Is “College and Career Ready” a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes?

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college readyBy Rita Platt and John Wolfe

These days it is almost impossible to escape the phrase “college and career ready.”   It is the new battle cry from some corners of education, “Our students must be college and career ready!” We have heard it what feels like countless times.

Say it, “career and college ready!”

Say it again, but louder and with more conviction, “Career and college ready!!!”

The idea is that by charging American schools with the task of getting all students college or career ready we will “fix” our society.  The phrase comes out of the Common Core State Standards .  The standards themselves are wonderful and have the potential to positively impact education in myriad ways (see Rita’s post, “3 Reasons to Celebrate the Common Core State Standards and 3 to Be Cautious”) . But “college and career ready”?  What does that really mean?

Stop and think.  What does it really mean to be “career and college ready” in America today? Frankly, far too few of us have taken the time to answer that question and then to question the answers, from the endless parade of people hollowly spouting those four meaningless words. Let’s take a few minutes to think about it together, then, ask yourself, if cloaking schools in “college and career readiness” strikes you as a case of the emperor’s new clothes.

First, think about  being “career ready.” How would you like to have promising career as a home health care worker making less than $20,000 a year?  How about as a child care worker making somewhere around$17,000 per year? Maybe you’d like to work toward a career in maintenance or construction earning $23,000? Would these be the careers you would want for your children? Well, these are the “careers” we are getting students ready for.  According to the US Department of Labor Statistics’ Occupation Finder , of the fastest growing jobs, 50% have median salaries of $25,000 or less per year and almost 25% require less than a high school diploma. Meaning, in essence, that for a large percentage of American students, we don’t have to do much to get them “ready” for “careers”.

That may be depressing enough. But, there is bad news for “college ready” students too. We all know that prices vary but, did you know that on average it costs a kid between $65,000 and $80,000 for a four-year degree?  Most students leave their four year colleges owing somewhere around $25,000. Considering the cost of student loans, a student can expect to be saddled with around a $700 per month repayment plan and end up adding over $15,000 in interest.  And, again, let’s remember, that is for a four year degree, not an advanced degree.

The purpose of setting a high-level vision, like being “college and career ready” is to clarify complex hopes and dreams. The problem is that this phrase does not clarify, in fact, if obfuscates.  On one hand we have the Common Core State Standards, which carefully and aptly define what it means to be educated. They are a worthy and powerful vision. On the other hand, we have a hollow phrase that is neither meaningful nor measurable.

Considering the grim realities above, how could anyone suggest that settling on the objective of getting kids “college and career ready” is a meaningful goal? The problem is bigger than education. The problem is more complex than implementing the Common Core State Standards can handle. Don’t get us wrong, we believe that schools do need to do better and the standards are a part of the solution. But, society as a whole needs to do better too.  In a terrific Slate article, Tressie McMillan Cottom, writes about what she calls the “Rules for a better conversation about how to fix a broken system.” According to her, we must:

  1. Address issues of an overall shabby economy.
  2. Face and fix issues of inequality in our society.
  3. “Call on the private sector to address its pathological unwillingness to expand hiring or pay wages that will attract skilled labor or to invest in the skills training of the labor they do have.”
  4. Clearly define expected outcomes rather than invoking murky phrases like “career and college ready.”

So, now, let’s go back and ask the question, what does it mean to be “career and college ready?”


It means nothing.  And worse, selling that idea to the public lets the nation as a whole off the hook. The social and economic problems we face are huge. The Common Core State Standards are a good step in the right direction. But the goal of them should be “all students will meet all standards and earn a high school diploma.” That should be the focus. Meeting the standards in and of itself is a worthy goal.  But, preparing students for high cost college educations or low wage “careers” brings with is a host of issues and problems so great schools cannot them tackle alone. In fact, selling that vision promotes too low of an expectation to our country as a whole. It is not enough.

Don’t trust the phase “college and career ready.” Don’t compliment the emperor on his new clothes.


  1. Pingback: Don’t EVER Say That Again! Our List of the Worst Buzz Words in Education | We Teach We Learn

  2. Here is the link to the website I wrote about the Emperor’s Clothes in May of 2014:

  3. Awesome, Joel! Will read asap!