Since the publication of A Nation At Risk in 1983, K-12 education reform has remained at the top of most state agendas. Forty-nine states have created K-12 content standards in most academic subjects, and most of these states have developed statewide K-12 student assessments (for more information see the Standards for Success website, K-12 accountability systems have been developed and tied to incentives pushing educators and schools to improve teaching and learning, and many states are focusing on improving their data systems in order to monitor changes resulting from these reforms. Most of the public policy changes have focused on K-12—not on postsecondary education, or on joining the two systems together. This has created a situation in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether public education systems are serving students’ needs across the P-16 continuum.

These changes are taking place as the student population and students’ aspirations change. The student population across the country—in K-12 and postsecondary education—is growing larger and more diverse. In 2001, 47.2 million students were enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools, a number that is projected to increase through 2005. In 1999, 38 percent of public school students were students of color, an increase of 16 percentage points from 1972 (U.S. Department of Education, 2001a).

There are approximately 2.5 million public high school graduates in the United States each year, a number that continues to grow. More than 70 percent of these graduates go on to postsecondary education within two years of graduating from high school, and over half of those students aspire to obtain a bachelor’s degree. However, over 50 percent of students entering postsecondary education are taking remedial courses, many in several subject areas. A large percentage of students are not continuing on for a second year of college, and degree completion rates at many institutions are at an all-time low (U.S. Department of Education 2001a, b, and c). A contributing factor to these problems could be the historical split between levels of states’ educational systems and the subsequent lack of communication, connection, and accountability among them.

A high school diploma used to be the highest degree necessary for an individual to obtain a job that could guarantee entrance into the middle class, but today at least two years of postsecondary training, if not a college degree, are required to achieve the same economic status. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that 70 percent of the 30 fastest growing jobs will require education beyond high school, and 40 percent of all new jobs will require at least an associate’s degree from a community college (Education Trust, 1999). College-going rates reflect those numbers. Data from the U.S. Census illustrate the significant economic returns of enhanced education: in the year 2000, median annual earnings for workers aged 25 and over with a high school diploma was $24,267, compared with $26,693 for workers with an associate’s degree and $40,314 for those with a bachelor’s degree (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001).

Traditionally, as compared to K-12 education, postsecondary education has remained relatively untouched by education reforms. There have been some significant policy changes in the past two decades, however, that have had a noteworthy impact on higher education. Beginning in the 1980s, many states began to adopt statewide admissions policies, particularly through the establishment of required high school coursework units for college admission (Rodriguez, 1998). State legislatures and courts have more recently become active in higher education admissions policies, something that was virtually unheard of twenty years ago. A decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Texas and a statewide ballot proposition in California (Proposition 209) changed the way many of the more selective institutions in those states could conduct their admissions policies by eliminating the use of affirmative action. Similar changes are underway in other states. As a result, new policies have been put in place to find new ways to reach the traditionally underrepresented populations. State legislatures and state higher education agencies have also become more involved in addressing remediation issues at the state level, an issue traditionally handled at the institutional level (Rodriguez, 1998). Concerns about the number of students who need to take remedial-, or developmental-, level courses in colleges and universities across the country (and about the costs associated with those courses) led many higher education institutions and systems to adopt new policies to try to eliminate or reduce significantly the provision of remedial courses on their four-year campuses.

There are currently, however, few adequate P-16 policymaking mechanisms at the state level to address issues related to student transitions from secondary to postsecondary education. There is usually no governance structure charged with P-16 reform and held accountable for change. While there are local partnerships focused on outreach issues in different sites around the country, there are few levers in place to encourage systemic collaboration between higher education and K-12. In California, for example, P-16 policymaking is divided between at least seven groups, creating a rather fragmented approach (Kirst, 2001). Tafel and Eberhart (1998) note that many state and local politicians have in recent years provided resources for school-college collaborative efforts, but argue that this is only a first step; sufficiently ensuring the successful student transition requires a reconception of current structures and practices and the development of new systemic approaches to link the two education sectors. While a few states have embarked on widescale P-16 reform efforts, they have run into political hurdles, such as a lack of perceived incentives on behalf of postsecondary education entities.

P-16 reform has become a term used by many policymakers and researchers to refer to a wide variety of efforts to increase student access to, and preparation for, postsecondary education. Many of these efforts are surface-level and are often in the form of programs that sit at the outside of schools’ and colleges’ missions. These can not change the deep problems discussed above. Work needs to be done to understand new incentives for higher education, in particular, to come to the table with K-12 to develop student-centered reforms. States need to consider large-scale changes in their curricula, standards, assessments, data collection, governance, and accountability efforts in order to tie systems together.

Thus, while the reality for most students is that their education will likely continue past the secondary years, state and institutional policies continue to reflect a significant separation between K-12 and higher education. The current organization of secondary schools and universities is such that communication and information dissemination between levels is often difficult. For instance, students—especially those who are economically disadvantaged—often do not know what colleges expect of them in terms of meeting their admission, course placement, and graduation requirements. Policies across the segments – particularly those concerning the transition from high school graduation to college admission – are fragmented and confusing. Curricula, standards, and assessments are often not aligned across systems. In order to increase opportunities for all students to prepare for, attend, and graduate from postsecondary education institutions, reform initiatives at various levels within the entire P-16 education system, such as the development of accountability system, should be integrated systemically.


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