In a tough job market with flat wages, few job opportunities for high school graduates, and ever-increasing tuition costs, colleges are expected to maximize students’ time and money, as well as keep their graduation rates competitive and their programs attractive.  

These goals can be challenging, and even contradictory, but there are measures that schools can take to make sure students begin college with a strong set of skills, stay engaged in relevant coursework, graduate on time and readily find employment. The following are some of the steps that can be taken, including prioritizing academic skill building and remediation, providing realistic degree programs that can be completed on time, and implementing best practices and new data in the field.

Step 1: Upskill
Students with a specific set of pre-college soft skills are more academically successful and more capable of navigating the challenges of college, including managing time and assignments, studying effectively, and using technology. High school “academic intensity” is a better indicator of degree completion than any other single factor, including family background, test scores or GPA.

By specifying the soft skills students are expected to have, and upskilling those who do not, colleges can lay the groundwork for a student body that is capable of learning and succeeding from day one.

Step 2: Empower
About 60 percent of all college students are not academically ready for college, and about half of those enrolled in associate degree programs take remedial classes to catch up. Students who need to spend a lot of time and money catching up are more likely to drop out and are less empowered to accomplish their academic and professional goals.

For colleges, student empowerment may be imparted with “co-requisite remediation” programs, in which students take remedial classes concurrently with credit courses.

Step 3: Plan
Most graduates end up taking many more credit hours than required, and most students take fewer credits per semester than are needed to graduate on time. Colleges do students a disservice when time and money are wasted on classes that get them no closer to degrees, or when they take semesters or years longer to graduate than expected.

It’s essential that students set short- and long-term goals, explore career options early and follow a coherent program of study that prioritizes realistic academic progression. Colleges should be expected to direct students to take only the courses they need (apart from desired electives), in the correct order, with an eye always toward the end goal of graduation.

Step 4: Engage
Colleges are composed of a wide range of professional staff dedicated to the academic success, professional placement and general well-being of their students. Unleashing its collective expertise can make the difference between a college career that peters out and one that leads to success, on campus and beyond.

Academic advisors and professors are best able to detect misaligned programs of study and identify academic problems. Teaching assistants also have close contact with students, as do student services staff, administrators and librarians. Enlisting an “all of the above” support system can ensure students don’t fall between the cracks.

Step 5: Graduate
It is an unpleasant reality that “some college” simply isn’t enough: students must graduate to benefit professionally from going to school. The unemployment rate is much higher for college dropouts and high school graduates (6.0 pecent for both) than for associate degree holders (4.5 percent), which is less than the national average.

This issue demands a two-pronged approach from colleges. First, they must continue and improve their systems of career advising, fairs, networking opportunities and placement programs to provide students the best chances to find professional-level jobs straight out of school. Second, they must ensure that every student is able to graduate on time, or at least graduate in a reasonable time frame.

College is simply too expensive for students to waste time and money pursuing academic programs that take too long or are unlikely to place them into professional careers. Many students have only one chance to get post-secondary education right; it is essential that colleges create a productive academic pathway by prioritizing soft skills training, strong academic foundations, career-oriented programs of study, and a multi-pronged support system.

Resources like PrepSTEP™ for Colleges can help. PrepSTEP is an online learning platform designed to meet the specific needs of students who need extra support and guidance. With comprehensive academic and career-related resources, this online tool fits right in with any college’s strategy to support students.

Want to learn more about PrepSTEP for Colleges?


Adelman, Clifford, “The Toolbox Revisited: Paths to Degree Completion from High School Through College” (Washington, D.C., U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

“Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy” (San Jose, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2010).

Vargas, Jose, “Why 12th Grade Must Be Redesigned Now—And How” (Boston, Jobs for the Future, 2015)

“Policy Brief: How Full-Time are “Full-Time” Students?” (Indianapolis, Complete College America, 2013).

“Table: Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment” (Washington, D.C., U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015).