For most Americans, the transition from high school to college today is as chancy and vexing as crossing a bridge over a river where builders on one bank have ignored what those on the other are doing. Only the fortunate will be able to make it across.

The sprawling, chaotic empire of K-12 education has created one set of institutions, norms, practices, and requirements. The unruly kingdom of higher education has created its own entirely separate set. Though they coexist in the same states and communities and are financed (at least in part, directly, or indirectly) by the same taxpayers and answer to the same elected officials. One might view this as a classic instance of American entrepreneurialism and diversity. If there’s no one stable span, after all, determined people will get across the river in myriad ways (though some will drown midstream). One can equally see the present confused arrangement, however, as a horrendous waste of public and private dollars, not to mention time and human capital. In the event, it isn’t working well enough to yield what America needs to prosper in today’s shrinking world. And with other public-sector expenses soaring, it is crazy to persist with practices so costly and inefficient.

The central challenge is to harmonize what high schools expect of their graduates with what universities expect of their entrants. In a rational world, those would be identical: a body of knowledge, skills, habits, and dispositions that equips young people to exit the K-12 system and enter the tertiary system with no need for remediation and no undue duplication or boredom.

A few states have been struggling to build such a span. (Indiana, with its statewide high-school core curriculum, starting with the class of 2011, comes to mind.) Some plucky scholars (for example, Stanford University's Michael W. Kirst) have set forth new engineering specs. And at least one national endeavor—the American Diploma Project, a partnership of four organizations and a growing number of states—has gone so far as to spell out the English and mathematics attainments that states should incorporate into their exit standards to prepare graduates for college-level work. (The project, which Fordham helped launch, found remarkable consensus among employers and university professors regarding the skills that young people need in those fields, no matter what path they tread after high school.)

Yet there are five major obstacles to building a sound bridge:

First, the two education empires have separate governance systems. Even in states that have struggled to unify their K-16 or K-20 systems (for example, in Florida, where the State Department of Education oversees all education), major institutions have significant autonomy (for example, Florida universities are under their own board of governors, separate from the state board; they also have their own boards of trustees). University trustees have deep roots and plenty of clout (and lots of graduates in the legislature); many states have strong local-control traditions within elementary and secondary education that limit the coordination. Hence few states have done more than appoint toothless “P-16 councils” and the like.

Second, a sizable “remediation industry” has grown up in American postsecondary education. Lots of faculty and staff members have jobs that depend on the persistence, even the growth, of remedial (or “developmental”) courses, and plenty of university revenues derive from state subsidies and tuition payments for those programs. Uncle Sam contributes as well, via a host of programs (e.g., the TRIO programs) that underwrite remediation, and the private sector, too, contains many companies that make money by coaching, tutoring, and otherwise helping equip their clients with the skills and knowledge that the regular schools have failed to impart. Such vested interests naturally oppose policy reforms that threaten their livelihood.

Third, state officials are understandably nervous about toughening K-12 academic standards at a time when there’s plenty of grumping (including from leaders of minority groups) about how hard it is to reach today’s standards, how many kids are dropping out, and how punitive it would be to expect tougher standards. Indeed, the No Child Left Behind Act’s demand for universal “proficiency” is leading some states to ease their standards to boost the fraction of nominally proficient students. (See here.) At the same time, many state officials—egged on by American higher education’s astute public-relations machine—are under the illusion that their tertiary sector is doing just fine, and the last thing they should do is mess with it.

Fourth, despite ample evidence to the contrary, poll after poll shows many Americans unconvinced that everybody needs to be ready for college. Hence the continuing popularity of high-school vocational education and the reluctance to install a true college-preparatory program as the “default” curriculum. (A few states, such as Arkansas and Texas, have tried to do so anyway, although their notion of college prep may only superficially resemble their universities’ expectations.)

Finally, the mostly laudable diversity of American higher education means it is hugely difficult to set a single “entry” standard that every campus within the state, even every public campus, will respect. That diversity creates options for students, to be sure, but practically ensures confusion in the high schools about the skills and knowledge students need for college.

Every one of those barriers is understandable. We know where they came from and why they endure. Yet the world is changing, and we do not have to assume that the past must be prologue.

Consider, for example, the newly enacted federal program that will give supersized Pell grants to college students who complete “a rigorous secondary-school program.” A fine idea, I believe, a true incentive for (low-income) high-school students to study harder and learn more. Yes, it means that the U.S. Department of Education must devise some way of defining and identifying “rigorous” high-school programs, which could turn out to be a regulatory nightmare. Yet it speaks to the country’s appetite—and Congress’s willingness to pay—for greater synchrony between secondary and tertiary education.

There’s more. “Early college” programs like those supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation send students to schools that let them earn up to two years of college credit, or an associate degree, while also earning a high-school diploma. “Postsecondary options” programs in states like Minnesota encourage high-school students to take courses on college campuses. Gates and several other national foundations are also supporting state-specific high-school reform grants. The nation’s governors are pushing to calibrate high-school reform to college (and work-force) expectations.

If enough governors want to make change happen, and if Congress is serious as well, it is not hard to picture some of the policies that might be usefully pursued. Four are self-evident:

• States should rethink their high-school exit norms, whether those take the form of course requirements, end-of-course exams, or statewide graduation tests, so that students who meet them actually possess college-ready skills and knowledge. And they should press the state’s public universities to accept those exit norms as sufficient evidence of readiness for entry into college-level study.

• States should rethink college financing—with several years’ lead time—so that their operating subsidies to their colleges pay only for “college level” work, not for remediation. (Alternatively, bill the K-12 school systems for the cost of remediating their graduates. That is an expense legitimately borne by the elementary-secondary budget line.)

• State and federal policy makers should rethink student-aid programs to create incentives for young people to apply themselves in high school, not just go through the motions. The new super Pell grants for high-achieving students are an example of a friendly sort. Banning the use of college-aid dollars for taking remedial courses is an example of a nastier genre.

• States and the federal government should rethink school-choice policies so that high-school students—and their schools—can benefit from accelerating when warranted and can smooth the transition from secondary to postsecondary education. “Early college” options for interested youngsters offer one model, but there are plenty more. For instance, a college that operates its own charter high school (something already permitted by most state laws but rarely done) could easily develop a seamless transition for its own students. Alternatively, charter-school chains (e.g., National Heritage Academies, the Big Picture Company, Edison Schools) might create their own colleges and feed their graduates straight into them. So could America’s burgeoning collection of “virtual” charter high schools, like the Wisconsin-based iQ Academies.

In sum, the school-college divide can be spanned in myriad ways that would work better for more people than today’s random, incoherent, and costly arrangement. Institutional inertia and vested interests will oppose all such innovations, but determined policy leaders (assisted by public and private dollars) should be able to overcome them, or at least make an end run around them. Today’s bridges, after all, take many forms. They don’t all resemble the familiar suspension spans across New York’s East River and San Francisco’s Golden Gate. Consider, for example, the stunning “cable stayed” bridges that have been built across harbors, canyons, and treacherous rivers. That’s the kind of innovation we need lots more of in education.

This article is excerpted from the March 10, 2006 issue of the
Chronicle of Higher Education.

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