Executive Summary


Executive Summary



America’s high school students have higher educational aspirations than ever before. Eighty-eight percent of 8th graders expect to participate in some form of postsecondary education (1), and approximately 70 percent of high school graduates actually do go to college within two years of graduating (2). These educational aspirations cut across racial and ethnic lines; as with the national sample cited above, 88 percent of all students surveyed for Stanford University’s Bridge Project, a six year national study, intend to attend some form of postsecondary education. In each of the six states studied for this report (California, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Oregon, and Texas), over 80 percent of African American and Latino students surveyed plan to attend some form of postsecondary education. But states have created unnecessary and detrimental barriers between high school and college, barriers that are undermining these student aspirations. The current fractured systems send students, their parents, and K-12 educators conflicting and vague messages about what students need to know and be able to do to enter and succeed in college. For example, this research found that high school assessments often stress different knowledge and skills than do college entrance and placement requirements. Similarly, the coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college. Current data systems are not equipped to address students’needs across systems, and no one is held accountable for issues related to student transitions from high school to college.

Many students and parents are confused by what is expected of students when they enter college, and these misunderstandings can contribute to poor preparation for college. We found that many students believe a variety of misconceptions, ranging from “Meeting high school graduation requirements will prepare me for college,” to “Community colleges don’t have academic standards”(see page 31 of the full report, for a complete list of misconceptions).

Other findings highlighted issues such as inequalities throughout education systems in college counseling,
college preparation course offerings, and connections with local postsecondary institutions; sporadic and vague student knowledge regarding college curricular and placement policies; the importance of teachers in advising students about college preparation issues; student overestimation of tuition; and an inequitable distribution of college information to parents. This report describes these problems further, provides a context for why they exist, and offers recommendations to improve the current situation. Our research found that the following three
actions are most promising for immediate reform:

• Provide all students, their parents, and educators with accurate, high quality information about, and access to, courses that will help prepare students for college-level standards.

• Focus on the institutions that serve the majority of students. Shift media, policy, and research attention to include to broad access colleges and universities attended by the vast majority of students (approximately 80 percent).

• Create an awareness that getting into college is not the hardest part. Expand the focus of local, state, and federal programs from access to college to include access to success in college—access to the resources and information students need to prepare well for college and to make informed decisions.

How can we achieve these ends? For a start, college stakeholders must be brought to the table when K-12 standards are developed. Likewise, K-12 educators must be engaged as postsecondary education admission and placement policies are under review. Reforms across the two education systems will be difficult if not impossible to implement without meaningful communication and policymaking between the levels.

There are several other important steps that states, K-12 schools and districts, postsecondary institutions and systems, and the federal government can take to improve the transition from high school to college for all students. These include:

• Examining the relationship between the content of postsecondary education placement exams and K-12 exit-level standards and assessments to determine if more compatibility is necessary and possible.

• Reviewing postsecondary education placement exams for reliability, validity, efficacy, and the extent to which they promote teaching for understanding.

• Allowing students to take placement exams in high school so that they can prepare, academically, for college and understand college-level expectations.

• Sequencing undergraduate general education requirements so that appropriate senior-year courses are linked to postsecondary general education courses.

• Expanding successful dual or concurrent enrollment programs between high schools and colleges so that they include all students, not just traditionally “college-bound” students.

• Collecting, and connecting, data from all education sectors.

• Establishing data collection standards.

• Establishing federal grants to stimulate more K-16 policymaking.

These recommendations will be easier to accomplish, and more effective in their implementation, if there is an overall organizational base for K-16 policymaking and oversight. Having a K-16 entity does not, however, ensure that innovative K-16 reforms will follow. Only a concerted effort by policymakers, educators, parents, and students will do the job. Implementing these recommendations will not magically eliminate the dozens of other reasons why students are not prepared adequately for college. But they are important steps toward developing a more equitable educational experience for all students, and providing all students with the preparation they need to succeed in college.


(1)National Center for Education Statistics. 1996. National Education Longitudinal Study: 1988-1994;
Descriptive Summary Report, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

(2)The Education Trust. Fall 1999. “Ticket to Nowhere. The Gap Between Leaving High School and Entering
College and High Performance Jobs,” in Thinking K-16, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Washington, DC: The Education Trust.


For additional information on these and other Bridge Project activities, please contact Mike Kirst .