The Big Picture

Photo looking down on a crowded convention hall during a job fair

Stay focused, go after your dreams, and keep moving toward your goals.

—L L Cool J, musician

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify your motivations for attending college and consider what it means to be college and career ready
  • Examine the value, both financial and otherwise, of a college education

Am I College and Career Ready?

Knowing what you truly want to gain from your college experience is the first step toward achieving it. But reaching your goals doesn’t necessarily mean you are college and career ready.

What does it mean to be ready for college and a career? In general, you are a college- and career-ready student if you have gained the necessary knowledge, skills, and professional behaviors to achieve at least one of the following:

  • Earn a certificate or degree in college
  • Participate in career training
  • Enter the workplace and succeed

For instance, if you are studying for a skilled trade license in college, or perhaps pursuing a bachelor of arts degree, you are college-ready if you have the reading, writing, mathematics, social, and thinking skills to qualify for and succeed in the academic program of your choice.

Similarly, you are a career-ready student if you have the necessary knowledge and technical skills needed to be employed in your desired field. For example, if you are a community college student ready to be a nurse, you possess the knowledge and skill needed to secure an entry-level nursing position, and you also possess required licensing.

Ultimately, college and career readiness demands students know more than just content, but demonstrate that they know how to learn and build upon that content to solve problems. They must develop versatile communication skills, work collaboratively and work competitively in a school or work environment. Ensuring that you possess both the academic and technical know-how necessary for a career beyond the classroom is a great step toward succeeding on whatever path you choose.

—Washington, DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education

College and Career Readiness in Your State

So where are you on the readiness scale? You can find out how your state measures your readiness. Visit the Interactive State Map at the College and Career Readiness and Success Center of the American Institutes for Research Web site. The map leads you to definitions of college and career readiness for your state. It also provides metrics to measure readiness. And it provides information about programs and structures to help you and educators. You can compare states across one or more categories.

Student Voices on Being College and Career Ready

In the following video, a number of high school students and recent graduates reflect on college and career readiness and their futures. As you view the video, be thinking about how your short-term goals can connect with longer-range ambitions. You might also reflect on how your deepening experiences in college can lead to achieving your longer-term goals. After all, each new experience in your life builds upon the last. You may never truly “arrive” at a destination if indeed your life is an ongoing journey.


The Value of College

Harvard campus with green lawns, trees, and brick buildings

The oldest institution of higher learning in the United States is widely acknowledged to be Harvard University. It was established in 1636 with the aim of providing instruction in arts and sciences to qualify students for employment. In the 1779 Constitution of Massachusetts submitted by Samuel Adams, John Adams, and James Bowdoin to the full Massachusetts Convention, the following language was used:

Art. I.—Whereas our wise and pious ancestors, so early as the year one thousand six hundred and thirty six, laid the foundation of Harvard-College, in which University many persons of great eminence have, by the blessing of GOD, been initiated in those arts and sciences, which qualified them for public employments, both in Church and State . . .

Is “public employment” preparation still the goal of higher education institutions today? Indeed, it is certainly one of the many goals! College is also an opportunity for students to grow personally and intellectually. In fact, in a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, Americans were split on their perceptions of the main purpose of a college education:

  • 47 percent of those surveyed said the purpose of college is to teach work-related skills.
  • 39 percent said it is to help a student grow personally and intellectually.
  • 12 percent said the time spent at college should be dedicated to both pursuits—teaching work-related skills and helping students grow personally and intellectually.

These statistics are understandable in light of the great reach and scope of higher education institutions. Today, there are some 5,300 colleges and universities in the United States, offering every manner of education and training to students.

What do employers think about the value of a college education? What skills do employers seek in their workforce? In 2014, Hart Research Associates conducted a survey on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The survey revealed that the majority of employers believe that having field-specific knowledge as well as a broad range of knowledge and skills is important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success.

Employers also said that when they hire, they place the greatest value on skills and knowledge that cut across all majors. The learning outcomes they rate as most important include written and oral communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision-making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings.[1]

Employment Rates and Salaries

Consider, too, the following statistics on employment rates and salaries for college graduates. College does make a big difference!

  • The average college graduate earns about 75 percent more than a non-college graduate over a typical, forty-year working lifetime. (U.S. Census Bureau)[2]
  • In 2014, young adults ages 20 to 24 with a bachelor’s degree or higher had a higher employment rate (88.1 percent) than young adults with just some college (75.0 percent). (NCES)
  • The employment rate for young adults with just some college (63.7 percent) was higher than the rate for those who had completed high school. (NCES)
  • The employment rate for those who completed high school (46.6 percent) was higher than the employment rate for young adults who had not finished high school. (NCES)
  • Employment rates were generally higher for males than females at each level of educational attainment in 2014. (NCES)[3]
  • Over the course of a forty-year working life, the typical college graduate earns an estimated $550,000 more than the typical high school graduate. (PEW)
  • The median gap in annual earnings between a high school and college graduate as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 is $19,550. (PEW)[4]

Perhaps most important, an overwhelming majority of college graduates—86 percent—say that college has been a good investment for them personally. (PEW)

Chart: Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment. The middle shows a range of degree levels, highest to lowest. On the left, in red, the unemployment rate in 2014 (%) is shown in a bar graph; on the right, in green, Median weekly earnings in 2014 ($) is shown. From top down: Doctoral degree: 2.1% unemployment, $1591 earnings. Professional degree: 1.9%, $1639. Master's degree: 2.8%, $1326. Bachelor's degree: 3.5%, $1101. Associate's degree: 4.5%, $792. Some college, no degree: 6.0%, 741. High school diploma: 6.0%, $668. Less than a high school diploma: 9%, $488. All workers: 5% unemployment, $839 median weekly earnings. Note: data are for persons age 25 and over. Earnings are for full-time wage and salary workers. Source: Current Population Survey, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor.

Differences in Earnings between States

You may wish to use this Earnings and Educational Attainment (2011) interactive table to see how earnings for college graduates vs. high school–only graduates in your state compare with those in other states.

All in all, college imparts a wide and deep range of benefits. The short video Why College, below, shows that with a college degree you are more likely to

  • Have a higher salary
  • Have and keep a job
  • Get a pension plan
  • Be satisfied with your job
  • Feel your job is important
  • Have health insurance

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.


  1. "Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success." Hart Research Associates, 20 Jan. 2015. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
  2. "Workplace, Office Blogs, Articles & Advice - Experience.com." Workplace, Office Blogs, Articles & Advice - Experience.com. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
  3. "Fast Facts." Fast Facts. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.
  4. "Is College Worth It?" Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2016.