Time for a lesson in metrics. This legendary unreadiness is usually expressed as "need remediation" which is turn is measured by "percentage of students taking remedial classes." Remember that.
This always sounds sciency because it comes out as number, but trying to pin down that number turns out to be a challenge. The National Center for Education Statistics has a paper that looks at those numbers for 1999-2000, 2003-2004, and 2007-2008, and while it breaks them down a variety of ways, the overall conclusion is that 1999-2000 was worse than either of the other years sampled, and all of the numbers hovered around the twenties, low or high. But this article from Chicagoland says that over a third of students entering college need remedial help, based on 2008 stats from the government-- same as the previous report. A Harvard professor looking at a 2003 study comes up with one third as well. The Inside Higher Ed Bridge to Nowhere report throws around a 30% number. And I would swear that I recently heard 46% tossed into the remediation soup as well. Most of these sources do not compare the current figures to any from the alleged golden age of non-remediation. So can I at least suggest that the numbers are "controversial" or "contested" or maybe even "pulled out of a variety of different orifices"?
I'm not a scholar in the field. But as a high school teacher I have a buttload of anecdotal evidence that might explain this trend if it in fact exists (which I will concede it very well might).
Explanation #1. The college admissions process.
We used to tell our students, "You need to take college prep classes and do well in them if you want to get into college." We still tell them that, but they laugh at us as if we had just told them that sasquatch will eat them if they don't do their homework.
They laugh because every one of them knows somebody who barely passed non-college prep classes who was still cheerfully accepted into a college. Because at least in PA the college-age market is shrinking dramatically, and colleges are suffering dire financial straights because they can't find
So when a local college prof starts in on "How can you send us these kids" my reply is always, "Look at his courseload and his grades. We told you exactly what you were getting. You accepted him anyway."
Explanation #2 College fund raising.
Funny thing about remedial courses at most colleges. They don't count as credit toward graduation. You do have to pay for them, though. So the more times a college can convince Joe Freshman that he "must" take Remedial Composition or Math or Hygiene, the more extra money they can bank.
For at least a decade I've been hearing stories about perfectly capable students who were told they must take a remedial course. Every once in a while they say, "No, I don't" and it never hurts them a bit. But imagine how many impressionable freshmen, alone in a college office without parental backup or sufficient knowledge of the system, are not able to stand up for themselves.
So have colleges start giving away remedial course for free, just to help their students succeed. Check what the enrollment numbers are like then. At that point, you can get back to me. In the meantime, remedial coursework is a great moneymaker for cash-strapped colleges.
Explanation #3 Marketing
We've been telling everybody that they just have to get a college education no matter what. It has been great marketing. It has brought lots of young folks into the market who are probably not well-served by the market. Meanwhile, America needs welders. Mike Rowe has been doing brilliant work on this issue. Bottom line-- we should stop heavily recruiting people who are 250 pounds and 6'6" to become jockeys.
So I can believe that college readiness is, kind of, an issue. But you'll notice that none of my proposed causes can be addressed by a national one-size-fits-all top-down-imposed curriculum.
[Update: Let me correct this an omission, because I do know better-- in many fairly significant ways, the reform movement has made things worse. For instance, standardized test writing is an abomination and teaching it undoubtedly makes students less ready for college. Just so you know I know.]