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Claiming Common Ground

State Policymaking for Improving College Readiness and Success


Major demographic shifts in the population of the United States, combined with persistent gaps in educational achievement by ethnic group, could decrease the portion of the workforce with college-level skills over the next 15 years, with a consequent decline in per capita personal income in the United States.2 Meanwhile, the competitive edge of the U.S. workforce is slipping; several other developed countries now surpass the United States in the percentage of their young working-age population enrolling in college and attaining a bachelor's degree.3 At a time when the knowledge-based, global economy requires more Americans with education and training beyond high school, the nation confronts the prospect of a sustained drop in the average educational levels of the U.S. workforce.4 This challenge places the United States at a crossroads: we can improve college readiness and completion rates and thereby prepare the workforce for the economic and civic challenges of the next generation, or we can allow gaps in educational achievement to undermine our competitive edge and our communities' economic prosperity.

Leaders from throughout the country—in public and private schools, charter schools, foundations, educational and policy organizations, businesses, states, and the federal government—have taken up this challenge. For example, reforming high schools has become a major focus in an overall drive to raise student achievement. Many of these efforts to improve our secondary schools have targeted student readiness for both college and work as a single key objective; the skills and knowledge required for middle-income jobs closely mirror those required for college success. As research has documented, reforms that focus either on K–12 schools or on colleges and universities are likely to perpetuate some of the key barriers to improving educational achievement for students.5 Yet the focus of most state educational reforms has been limited to K–12 school systems. Some of the most robust challenges in raising student achievement can be found at the juncture—or more accurately the disjuncture—between our K–12 systems and our colleges and universities.

In the United States, secondary and postsecondary education have developed divergent histories, governance structures, policies, and institutional boundaries. As a result, there are few widespread practices or traditions for these two systems of education to communicate with each other, much less to collaborate to improve student achievement across institutions. Advocacy organizations are working on behalf of K–12 schools on the one hand or colleges and universities on the other, but there are no lobbying groups in state capitals seeking to improve college readiness by bridging the divide between K–12 and higher education. There are few accountability systems that track college readiness from secondary to postsecondary education. And no one is held responsible for the students who drop between the cracks of the two systems.

Gaining admission to college is not the most daunting challenge facing high school graduates—although many students think that it is and most college preparation efforts focus on admissions. The more difficult challenge for students is becoming prepared academically for college coursework. Once students enter college, about half of them learn that they are not prepared for college-level courses. Forty percent of students at four-year institutions and 63% at two-year colleges take remedial education.6 According to Measuring Up 2004, the state-by-state report card on higher education, the timely completion of certificates and degrees remains one of the weakest aspects of performance in higher education.7

This report identifies four state policy dimensions for improving college-readiness opportunities for all high school students:

  • Alignment of coursework and assessments: States should require K–12 and postsecondary education to align their courses and assessments. Currently, the K–12 standards movement and efforts to improve access and success in higher education are not connected.

  • State finance: States should develop financial incentives and support to stimulate K–12 and postsecondary education to collaborate to improve college readiness and success. Most existing state finance systems perpetuate the divide between K–12 and postsecondary education.

  • Statewide data systems: States should develop the capacity to track students across educational institutions statewide. Currently, most states do not collect adequate data to address the effectiveness of K–12 reforms in improving student readiness for college.

  • Accountability: States should publicly report on student progress and success from high school through postsecondary education. Schools, colleges, and universities should be held accountable for improving student performance from high school to college completion.
Through these policy levers, states can create the conditions for claiming common ground between our systems of K–12 and postsecondary education.

2 National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, "Income of U.S. Workforce Projected to Decline if Education Doesn't Improve," in Policy Alert (San Jose, CA: Nov. 2005).

3 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance (Paris, France: 2004).

4 Patrick Kelly, As America Becomes More Diverse: The Impact of State Higher Education Inequality (Boulder, CO: National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, 2005).

5 Andrea Venezia, Michael Kirst, and Anthony Antonio, Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations (Stanford, CA: Bridge Project, Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research, 2003).

6 National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 2001), p. 148.

7 National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Measuring Up 2004 (San Jose, CA: 2004),


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