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Student Readiness Challenges are Here to Stay. Is Your Institution Prepared to Tackle Them?

April 29, 2024, By Alexa Silverman, Senior Director, Student Experience and Well-Being Research

By now, most higher education leaders have seen the early impacts of K12’s unfinished learning manifesting on their campus in chronic absenteeism, spiking DFW rates, and widespread classroom disengagement. What you may not know is that the readiness challenge is not going away.  In fact, the biggest impacts haven’t even hit college campuses yet. Students who were in elementary school when the pandemic started are not on pace to recover by the time they reach college in the next 3-5 years.

This unfinished learning will have widespread effects on college campuses:

  • Enrollment leaders can expect the coming demographic cliff to deepen, as some students will opt out of college when the readiness gap is too wide to overcome.
  • Academic leaders will need to find a way to greatly expand corequisite remediation to incorporate middle-school-level reading and math skills.
  • Faculty will be confronted with a greater number of students than ever before who struggle with classroom attendance, staying focused during class sessions, and completing assignments on time.
  • Student affairs leaders, who are already managing short-staffed and capacity-constrained student services offices, will see even greater demand for their staff’s time across counseling, academic resource centers, disability services, and more.

All of this comes at a time when higher ed institutions are already having to make painful budget cuts and do “less with less”.

EAB research identified four dimensions of student readiness that institutions must prepare to address both today and across the next decade.

1. Academic Readiness

Before we can even begin tackling unfinished learning in reading and math, colleges need to find strategies to teach students fundamental study skills and time management. First-year students have always needed to adjust from high school expectations to the stricter demands of studying for college and managing a schedule on their own. But college educators say today’s students have more fundamental gaps in their knowledge: they don’t even know how to make flashcards or study in a group. Without closing these gaps, instructors will continue to see a rising number of unexpected absences, late or incomplete assignments, and poor exam scores.

Psychological disabilities can also pose barriers to completing assignments and exams successfully and on time. As awareness and diagnosis of conditions like ADHD, autism, anxiety, and learning disabilities grows, students now understand there may be accommodations available to help them succeed in college. But the process remains opaque and confusing to many students, who are accustomed to having IEPs throughout K-12, and to faculty, who aren’t sure how reasonable accommodations are defined for psychological conditions.

2. Socioemotional Readiness

The rise in students struggling with their mental health continues to have ripple effects inside and outside the classroom. According to the latest Healthy Minds study, over 60% of students faced mental health challenges in 2023, like anxiety, depression, and severe stress.

Those challenges not only make it difficult for students to prioritize academics and college success, they also put extra pressure on faculty in the classroom. Faculty are trying to teach burnt-out and disengaged students who seem apathetic and withdrawn in class. That problem, too, is also building in K-12 classrooms, where 47% of teachers say students showing little to no interest in learning is a major problem.

3. Financial Readiness

Students also don’t feel financially ready for college, especially amid high inflation. Even before the pandemic in 2019, 47% of students said they didn’t feel prepared to manage college finances. This challenge too is worsening, with two-thirds of current college students now saying inflation impacted their financial well-being. And with financial aid offices critically short-staffed and ongoing FASFA delays, it’s unclear where students should go instead. That’s especially true for complex questions about the intersections between finances, housing, academics, and athletics.

4. Career Readiness

Readiness doesn’t end with college completion—students also need to be prepared to successfully navigate the college to career transition. A recent report from the Mary Christie Institute confirmed what many employers have seen anecdotally. New graduates don’t feel ready for the mental and emotional demands of a career, and they wish colleges had helped them more. In fact, 39% said their college did not prepare them for the emotional or behavioral impact of the transition to the workplace. Adapting student career development for Gen Z isn’t just a matter of providing resume advice and interview prep. Colleges need to help students get professional experience early and often, build social capital and networks, and grow the resilience and coping skills they need to thrive in their job hunt and their careers.

How prepared is your institution to tackle the readiness challenge?

Closing academic, socioemotional, financial, and career readiness gaps won’t happen overnight, but with a coordinated, cross-campus approach it is possible. There is no one office, division, or leader that can tackle this challenge alone. Solving the readiness challenge requires coordination across academic affairs, enrollment management, and student affairs as well as buy-in from chief financial officers whose strategic investment decisions determine what level of support institutions can provide.

Alexa Silverman

Senior Director, Student Experience and Well-Being Research

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