Published Online: May 7, 1997

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Connecting K-12 and College

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With unparalleled enrollment growth facing both sectors, the next stage of reform should be greater collaboration.

The recent report by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley on the "baby boom echo" describes an unparalleled enrollment increase in the public schools: Last fall, school enrollment reached 51.7 million students, more than the 51.3 million record set by the baby boomers 25 years ago. ("Enrollment Crunch Stretches the Bounds of the Possible," Sept. 11, 1996.) Enrollment will rise to a new high of 54.6 million by 2006. The enrollment growth is the test, the secretary said, of whether America will invest "the time, energy, and resources, so that these children and this nation can look to the future with confidence."

According to federal education officials, maintaining the current service levels in elementary and secondary education will require 190,000 additional teachers, over 6,000 more schools, and approximately $15 billion in added annual operating expenditures. Most of the growth in enrollment will be in about half the states, with the Western states facing the greatest increase.

Increases in school enrollments will result in about a 14 percent rise in college enrollments nationally. Again, about half the states will account for most of the increase. In California, colleges and universities will have to absorb about another half-a-million new college students by 2006. The costs of accommodating growth in California higher education alone are staggering. Some 5.2 billion new dollars for operating and construction costs will be required (on top of a base of $6.5 billion) to provide about the same level of service.

It is unlikely that the next generation of young people will want to see their opportunities for education beyond high school reduced. In fact, they will probably insist that opportunities be expanded. From 1990 to 1995, the proportion of high school graduates going on to college increased by 7 percent nationally. Due to rising employer expectations for job skills and a public belief that a college education is the gateway to middle-class opportunity, demand for higher levels of education is likely to increase even more.

At present, there are only two alternatives for addressing this college enrollment growth. The first is to simply jam more people into college classrooms and hope that they absorb something. The other is to curtail access to higher education. Neither alternative has anything to recommend it. Both would be economically shortsighted; both would severely weaken reform efforts in the public schools. Both would undermine educational quality and three decades of public policy that have expanded college opportunity. Most important, neither alternative would instill a sense of confidence in the future.

How can the country meet these unprecedented levels of enrollment demand? At the same time, how can we create higher levels of achievement for all students? Many of the gains to be made in both the educational and financial productivity of the system can be achieved by focusing on the interface of the educational sectors. Collaboration has never been easy, and it will be even more difficult in the future, for it is likely to challenge conventional wisdom in both the public schools and higher education about how each sector organizes and delivers its services. But by working together, schools and colleges can accomplish what neither has been able to accomplish alone during the past decade of reform: significantly improved student achievement, better access to and preparation for college, and increased financial productivity.

A 1973 Carnegie Commission report, "Continuity or Discontinuity," first articulated the importance of focusing on this "interface" of the educational sectors. It identified admissions, curriculum, and teacher education as among the major areas of conflict. It also called attention to the overlap and duplication that occurred during the last two years of high school and the first two years of college, suggesting that the last year of high school be eliminated for most students. Few reform changes that have come since would invalidate the critique of the Carnegie Commission more than 20 years ago.

It is not likely that higher education's business-as-usual approach will significantly improve student achievement in the schools.

Since the mid-1980s, the point at which most scholars date the beginning of the contemporary school reform movement, schools have been under enormous pressure to change, while little change has been expected in the behavior and traditions of higher education. For example, the development of college preparatory curricula through prescribed coursework--a common strategy for improving K-12 education (the so-called Carnegie units)--was fully compatible with the discipline-based organization and values of higher education. Until recently, partnerships for preparing better teachers have also required little change of higher education. It is not likely that higher education's business-as-usual approach will significantly improve student achievement in the schools or increase educational opportunity for the next generation. It is more likely that pressures, both political and financial, will require that higher education become an active partner with schools--in their own efforts to promote reform.

There are three areas around which more effective and widespread collaborative efforts could be built that result in significant improvements in student achievement and improved productivity of the overall educational system. The first is through the widespread development of college-preparation opportunities for young people; the second is the reform of college admissions; and the third is the overhaul of teacher education. Some potentially powerful and imaginative examples of collaborative relationships illustrate creative ways that states, school systems, and colleges and universities can find solutions to these problems.

  • Early college enrollment. Efforts to provide opportunities for young people to enroll early in college have potentially big payoffs. Student motivation and participation in these programs testify to the fact that, when given the chance, high school students will take advantage of challenging and advanced learning opportunities.

A well-known model, "Project Advance," developed by the faculty at Syracuse University, provides college-level courses taught by high school teachers with special training from the Syracuse faculty. The courses fulfill both high school and college requirements. Credits from Project Advance are accepted at over 400 colleges and universities around the country. This example is particularly interesting in that the students who participate--now numbering more than 85,000--go beyond those enrolled in traditional high school honors courses. Administrators of Project Advance estimate that 25 percent of the participants enter college with enough credits to graduate a semester early, and over 90 percent graduate within four years. These students pay lower fees than regularly enrolled college students, and financial aid is provided for needy students.

The College Board's Advanced Placement courses and examinations are another alternative popular with high school students and accepted at many colleges and universities around the country. In California, the number of high school students participating in Advanced Placement has increased by more than 65 percent between 1986 and 1994. And between 1994 and 1995, the number of AP exams per 1,000 11th and 12th graders increased by a whopping 17 percent. Students are awarded credit toward the high school diploma and toward a college degree.

To illustrate the potential savings, the California Higher Education Policy Center estimates that, by 2006, if 70 percent of entering freshman at the University of California (the state's most competitive public institution) began college with at least one semester's worth of college credit taken through AP courses, community colleges, and other means (and currently 25 percent do), nearly $47 million could be saved and invested elsewhere.

To accommodate an estimated 77 percent increase in high school graduates, and an increased demand for higher education, Nevada school administrators and college leaders have developed a plan to share facilities, faculty members, and other institutional resources. Small off-campus technical centers would be built on high school campuses. In exchange for allowing the schools use of the center during the day, the high school would allow the community college use of its classrooms in the late afternoon and evening. Students would be able to enroll concurrently for high school and college coursework.

Educators hope that educational technology planned for the new center will improve outreach to the community as well as learning for both high school and college students. Officials estimate that the centers can be built for about $5 million apiece, while a full-fledged campus would cost at least 10 times that much. Educators also expect that the centers will be less expensive to operate by maintaining small administrative staffs and drawing on existing and part-time adjunct faculty members.

States can learn from the creative experiments already in place and design public policies that increase the likelihood of better collaborative relationships.

Other early-enrollment models (including "Running Start" in Washington state, Minnesota's concurrent-enrollment program, and Massachusetts' dual-enrollment option) testify to the willingness and readiness of high school students to participate in early-college-enrollment opportunities and the potential educational and financial savings that can result.

  • Admissions reform. Since the mid-1980s, colleges and universities have played a role in signaling what courses were important for high school students to take by requiring the traditional Carnegie units, along with other requirements (SAT and high school grade-point-average standards) for college admission. These require- ments changed in important ways the behavior of high school students and teachers. Students and their parents understood this signal and insisted that the required courses be offered in their high schools. Evidence in California and other states speaks to the success of this strategy. Its limitations have also become apparent in recent years, since the course-taking pattern of high school students--as a single strategy for reform--has not been sufficient to result in the expected rise in student achievement.

The next stage of reform, well-illustrated by an example from Oregon but also under way in Colorado and Wisconsin, requires high schools and colleges to better define the competencies, skills, and knowledge students need to be successful in college and to link those to changes in the elementary and secondary curriculum and to college admissions. The Oregon Proficiency-Based Admissions Policy, or PASS, which is to be implemented by 2002, will replace proxies for admission to college, like Carnegie units and SAT examinations, with clearly specified statements of the knowledge and skills students must master.

Once higher education better defines the competencies, skills, and knowledge needed to succeed, high school students should have the opportunity to take college placement exams to determine their progress toward meeting these requirements.

  • Teacher education reform. Often overlooked, teacher education is one of the most powerful levers for school reform, one in which colleges and universities have a nearly exclusive monopoly. As John I. Goodlad describes eloquently, what is at stake in this responsibility is no less than the well-being of democracy itself--the institutions in which our children learn the basic principles and knowledge for living effectively in a democratic society.

Numerous national reports and commissions have made recommendations about the importance of reform in teacher education. The latest is the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, which recommended last fall requirements that teachers be trained in the fields in which they planned to teach, the implementation of candidate-based licensing requirements similar to those in law and medicine, and closer linkages with the schools in creating professional-development sites dedicated primarily to the preparation of teachers. ("Teaching Focus Called the Key in Reform Push," Sept. 18, 1996.)

The commission also recognized the universitywide responsibility for teacher preparation. Several states are encouraging the development of professional schools for prospective teachers, and many colleges and universities are experimenting with models for professional-development schools.

Another encouraging step toward reform is that at least 17 states are moving forward in a cooperative effort to develop candidate-based assessments through the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium, under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The development of these standards should be a joint responsibility shared by college and school leaders.

States can learn from the creative experimentation already in place and design public policies that increase the likelihood of better collaborative relationships between the educational sectors. One way to do this is to leverage new dollars targeted for K-12 and higher education in these areas of reform. Another way is for states--and many are beginning to move in this direction--to take the lead in establishing educational standards along the entire educational spectrum, including standards for college admission that are related to learning expectations in the schools as well as those necessary for college success. The accompanying assessment tools to make the standards real must also be used in decisionmaking about student progress along the educational continuum.

It is unlikely that those states focusing on the reform of K-12 exclusively or of higher education independent of the schools will realize their expectations for improvements in student achievement or make the most out of their financial resources. Those states that pursue an educational agenda focused on the interface between the educational sectors stand a better chance of rising to Secretary Riley's challenge and moving in a way that enables America's students to look to the future with confidence.


Joni E. Finney is the associate director of the California Higher Education Policy Center in San Jose, Calif.

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