College Readiness

Issued Date
October 04, 2022
Education, New York City Department of

College Readiness Interactive Map


To determine whether the New York City Department of Education is adequately preparing students for post-secondary institutions. Our audit covered the period from September 2015 through March 2022 and included students who were expected to graduate high school by August 2019.

About the Program

According to the U.S. Department of Education, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require education beyond a high school diploma – a college degree or advanced certificate represents entry to rewarding careers. However, nearly half of all students who do complete high school and go to college require remedial courses and nearly half never graduate.

The New York City Department of Education (DOE) – the nation’s largest school system, comprising 32 school districts – served approximately 900,000 students at its more than 1,500 elementary, middle, and high schools (excludes charter schools/students) in the 2021-22 school year. Over the past several years, DOE has reported increases in the percentage of students graduating from its high schools, yet the percentage of students whom it has determined to be college ready has continuously lagged. For example, in 2019, while 77.3% of high school students citywide graduated, only 57% were considered college ready. Similar percentages occurred in 2018 and 2017.

There are a number of definitions of college readiness. In general, college readiness refers to the set of skills, behaviors, and knowledge a high school student should have before enrollment in their first year of college. At the core of the different definitions of college readiness are assessments of students’ proficiency levels in English (reading and writing) and Math.

Being college ready helps students be better prepared for the post-secondary pathway they pursue after graduating high school – whether they decide to enroll in college, get a job, pursue a trade, or enlist in the military, for example – and can result in better opportunities and access to careers that provide sustainable wages.

While DOE officials explained there are no legal or regulatory definitions that speak specifically to college readiness, DOE has developed its own definition for college readiness – a student who: (1) can successfully meet DOE’s criteria for graduation from high school and obtain the highest possible diploma/credential; (2) can make an informed decision about immediate next steps after high school; (3) is able to enter a post-secondary pathway without the need for remedial instruction/training; and (4) persists through a post-secondary pathway that leads to a degree, credential, and/or employment providing family-sustaining wages.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, schools had to shift from in-person learning to remote learning. Due to the disruptions in teaching and learning, assessment exams used to determine proficiency levels – a major aspect of college readiness – were canceled, allowing students to graduate without taking the exams. In turn, this made it easier for students to graduate although they may not have been college ready. Subsequently, DOE reported increased graduation rates – 78.8% in 2020 and 81.2% in 2021. Yet, while the percentage of students graduating is increasing, the trend showing the gap between high school graduation rates and college readiness rates is likely to continue in the foreseeable future.

For purposes of our audit, we selected to review 71,210 students who first entered 9th grade in the 2015-16 school year and were expected to graduate 4 years later, by August 2019 (referred to as a cohort). Additionally, we included students who enrolled in the high schools in our cohort after that date and were also expected to graduate by August 2019. We looked at how this cohort fared overall in terms of high school graduation rates, enrollment in college, and persistence in college (still attending) for 6 months after enrolling. Then, for a sample of 291 students from this cohort, we sought to determine whether they were college ready by DOE’s definition. In addition, for the sampled students, we looked at their proficiency levels from as far back as the 3rd grade and whether they persisted in college for at least 18 months after enrolling (through May 2021).

Key Findings

We found DOE should do more to prepare students to be college ready regardless of the post-secondary pathway they decide to take (e.g., enroll in college, get a job, pursue a trade, enlist in the military), and this preparation should begin much earlier in students’ school years.

  • For the cohort of 71,210 high school students expected to graduate by August 2019, as many as 23% of students did not graduate on time. Further, we found 38% of the students in this cohort did not continue or persist in college for 6 months after enrolling (i.e., 6-month persistence).
  • For the sample of 291 students from this cohort, we determined that 45% were not college ready, including students who did not graduate by their expected graduation date as well as students who graduated but did not meet proficiency standards.
  • Our review of the 3rd through 8th grade assessments for the 291 students in our cohort sample found that students experienced a significant drop in proficiency in both English and Math between elementary school and middle school.
  • For the students in our sample who graduated from high school, 38 did not meet all the minimum scores required to earn the diploma they received. For example, one student was awarded a Regents diploma but should have been awarded a Local diploma.

Key Recommendations

  • Assess and provide support to school districts with a high percentage of students who did not graduate or persist in college.
  • Evaluate the reasons behind the significant number of students who were assessed as not college ready, and use the information to assist students and schools in improving proficiency levels.
  • Develop a system to analyze annual State assessment test results as early as elementary and middle school to identify students who may need additional help to become college ready.
  • Develop and implement controls to ensure students are awarded the appropriate type of diploma.

Kenrick Sifontes

State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director:Kenrick Sifontes
Phone: (212) 417-5200; Email: [email protected]
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236