If America's elementary and high schools laid a sounder educational foundation for more of their students, America's colleges would be far more successful at constructing a solid and artful edifice atop it. For millions of today's young people, however, the first task of postsecondary education is to impart the skills, knowledge and habits of mind that our secondary schools neglected because they were consumed by the challenge of backfilling for grades K-8.
Some colleges and universities do a decent job of this. And some--by and large the most selective and prestigious among them--don't need to because they're blessed with students who, thanks to some fortunate combination of good schools, attentive parents and personal drive, emerged from the K-12 gauntlet with a good-to-excellent education.
Yes, despite all the shortcomings, criticisms and nation-at-risk grumbling, tens of thousands of young Americans do well in school, and hundreds of schools do a praiseworthy job, at least for a substantial fraction of their pupils. For these students, college should--and can--be an intellectual feast of substantial entrees, exotic side dishes, novel condiments, and scrumptious desserts.
The educational risks they face, meanwhile, are three: premature vocationalism (too many accounting or teaching-methods courses; not enough art, literature, history and philosophy); being swept up in trendy academic ephemera (gender studies, oppression studies, etc.); and the temptations of personal freedom (partying rather than studying). Their universities could do far more to advise them and structure their campus experience--expecting students to work through all this alone is a major source of higher education's woeful dropout rate--but those who survive are apt to emerge as resourceful if not necessarily superbly educated adults.
At the same time, millions of entering freshmen aren't really ready for "higher" education. (Veteran Boston University president John Silber was known for asking "higher than what?") Besides the on-campus challenges they will encounter, they begin with the handicap of a high-school diploma that signifies "time spent" and "courses taken" but not "skills and knowledge acquired." Studies by ACT have shown that fewer than one-fourth of high-school graduates who take that organization's tests--presumably because they intend to go to college--are academically prepared for college-level work in English, math and science.
That means three-quarters of them bought a lemon of a K-12 education--another big reason why so many of those who do start college subsequently falter. (Less than 60 percent of students in four-year colleges complete degrees within six years. The community-college attrition rate is far worse.)
And that's pretty much what all the school-reforming of recent years has been about, which is culminating in today's push to align K-12's academic standards with the expectations of college professors and employers. Any number of heavy hitters--the National Governors Association, the Gates Foundation, the Obama administration and more--are pressing in this direction. One result, due any day now, will be publication, for the first time in U.S. history, of something akin to "national standards" for high-school completion, at least in the core skills of reading and math.
They'll be voluntary, to be sure, and not every state will embrace them. Nor does adopting them necessarily mean that tomorrow's schools will succeed better than yesterday's at actually readying their pupils to attain those standards--or that states will actually deny diplomas to students who don't reach them.
Indeed, it's not even clear yet whether these new standards will represent an improvement on the motley collection of K-12 expectations that states (and communities and individual schools) have devised on their own. Today's authors of "common" standards must navigate treacherous political shoals--how many young people dare elected officials force to repeat grades or not graduate?--and such academic reefs as the campaign to trade in traditional content knowledge--multiplication tables, To Kill a Mockingbird, Macbeth, etc.--for "21st century skills" like creativity and working well together.
Yet America's long-term well-being depends in no small part on successful navigation through these hazardous waterways. Once upon a time, we could reply to critics that our education system made up in quantity whatever it lacked in quality. Back then, we graduated the world's largest fraction of young people from secondary school and sent them on to higher education.
We had more college degrees in proportion to our population than any other major country. We also boasted more than our share of the world's most esteemed universities.
The last of those claims is probably still true, though major strides are being made by India, China, and other nations, including long-complacent Europe. But several other lands now surpass America in high school and college completion rates; their numbers are rising, while ours are flat.
We need to focus simultaneously on quality and quantity, not trade one off for the other. And doing this right means focusing simultaneously on K-12 and higher education, on ensuring that the former does better at preparing many more young people to succeed in the latter and that our colleges then erect a world-class structure on the foundation that the high schools have built. America can no longer afford to bestow a first-rate education on just a fraction of its population.
This piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.