The ACT reported that 31 percent of all high school graduates tested were not ready for any college coursework requiring English, science, math or reading skills. The other 69 percent of test takers met at least one of the four subject-area standards.
Just a quarter of this year's high school graduates cleared the bar in all four subjects, demonstrating the skills they will need for college or a career, according to company data.
The report's findings suggest that many students will struggle when they arrive on campus or they will be forced to take remedial courses often without earning credits to catch their peers.
The data reveal a downturn in overall student scores since 2009. Company officials attribute the slide to updated standards and more students taking the exams including many with no intention of attending two- or four-year colleges.
In terms of careers, the report found a chasm between what students want to study and where they might find jobs down the road. ACT compared federal Bureau of Labor Statistics projections with their own questionnaires and found insufficient student interest in the five fastest-growing industries with workers who require some college.
Under ACT's definition, a young adult is ready to start college or trade school if he or she has the knowledge to succeed without taking remedial courses. Success is defined as the student's having a 75 percent chance of earning a C grade and a 50 percent chance of earning a B, based on results on each of the four ACT subject areas, which are measured on a scale from 1 to 36 points.
ACT said it updated its benchmarks for success in reading and science this year to better reflect what students need to know.