Bridging the Gap

How to Strengthen the Pk-16 Pipeline to Improve College Readiness

policy paper | January 29, 2009

Far too many students leave high school unprepared for the rigors of college and the workplace. Nearly a third of all incoming freshmen- 42 percent of first-year students at public two-year colleges-require remediation. At some postsecondary institutions, more than 90 percent of first-time freshmen need to take remedial classes before enrolling in courses that count toward their degrees. Remedial courses are offered at 99 percent of public two-year colleges and more than 75 percent of public four-year institutions.

Our nation's high schools bear much of the blame for this lack of academic preparation. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only a fourth of high school seniors scored proficient or above in mathematics, while only a third scored proficient or above in reading. Yet 66 percent of high school graduates go on to postsecondary institutions. Unfortunately for them, they are graduating ill-prepared for college-level work.

But the issue is more than a matter of poorly performing secondary schools. Low college readiness rates are a massive failure of the pre-kindergarten through college (Pk-16) system as a whole. High schools, colleges, and universities have not worked together to establish expectations or common standards as to what students should know and be able to do. Postsecondary admissions policies vary widely from college to college, and key admissions criteria, like standardized tests, are not anchored in high school academic goals. Similarly, high schools have not aligned their graduation requirements with college readiness standards; only six states in the nation have taken steps to align their graduation exit exams with workforce and postsecondary expectations.

Policymakers have made some progress in improving the secondary to postsecondary pipeline. Many states have rewritten their high school standards, while others have set up councils to smooth the transition between high school and college. Some states have taken steps to improve their students' college readiness by requiring all ninth graders to enroll in a college preparatory curriculum. Federal programs are also attempting to improve the college readiness of disadvantaged students through early intervention and academic support.

Still, much more needs to be done. Despite good intentions, current initiatives are often weak and disconnected. Too many students are getting lost amid the competing demands and misaligned policies of the Pk-16 system as a whole. Indeed, one of the most vexing problems is that there is not one system, but a multitude that act independently of one another.

It is time for the federal government to partner with key stakeholders-states, colleges, and secondary schools-to address our nation's college remediation crisis. This can only be achieved by leveraging limited federal resources in both the short and long term to create ideal conditions for deep and lasting reform. To accomplish these goals, we recommend:

Improving the Pk-16 pipeline. For high school graduates to succeed in college and compete in the global economy, they must clear a minimum preparedness bar and be ready for the rigors of college and the workforce. We recommend that the federal government provide states with incentives to come together and adopt national college and work-readiness standards in math, science, and the language arts. States who choose to adopt these benchmarks as their core standards under the current No Child Left Behind (NCLB) accountability system should be given the option to administer a federally designed assessment at no cost to them. We also recommend that the federal government mandate and provide funding for high school graduation plans that include an expectation of college enrollment even for students who intend to enter the workforce immediately after graduation. In addition, the federal government should work directly with states to foster partnerships between high schools and postsecondary institutions to smooth the transition between high school and college.

Financing and restructuring programs that improve college readiness. The federal government should significantly restructure and adequately fund its current approach to early intervention college readiness programs. In addition, federal dollars should be leveraged to identify and seed further growth of promising models currently being tested in states, in local school districts, and on college campuses.

Strengthening college remediation. The federal government must also play a leading role in restructuring the current college remediation system. It should play the primary role in collecting data on the scope and depth of the problem so that an adequate and appropriate response can be developed. It should conduct rigorous research into what works in college remediation. And, it must leverage its own dollars by partnering with key stakeholders to establish a system that provides students with low- or no-cost remediation before their postsecondary studies begin. That said, the responsibility for providing remedial education must be shared by all stakeholders-the states, institutions of higher education, school districts, and the federal government-and the remediation provided must be of high quality.

Read the full PDF here.