The majority of American students who successfully complete high school today reach graduation without satisfying even the minimal qualifications for admission to a four-year college or university (Green and Forster, 2003). For some students, this is neither surprising nor troubling, as they understand the paths ahead of them and have little interest in pursuing postsecondary education. For others who have done everything asked of them to receive a diploma, high school graduation brings with it a harsh lesson about the chasm between America’s K-12 and postsecondary education systems.
In this paper, we explore the transition between American secondary and postsecondary institutions and how it is shaped by intra- and intergovernmental relations. At its core, we believe that the problem is one of failed governmental coordination. Although the history and depth of the divide is discouraging for those hoping for a seamless transition between K-12 and higher education, greater coordination between state agencies and across local, state, and federal governments could hold the key to ensuring that students are prepared to succeed in college and the workforce.
The paper begins with an outline of the obstacles impeding the high school to college transition, which is rife with academic and non-academic hurdles for students and inefficiencies for local and state governments. We then examine five historical explanations for the divide between K-12 and higher education. Next, we identify the roles of state and local actors and discuss how intra- and intergovernmental collaboration can help or hinder this transition. Finally, we describe some particular types of governmental collaboration, including P-16 and P-20 councils, and consider what the federal “Race to the Top” competition teaches us about a possible federal role in bridging the gap between America’s K-12 and higher education systems.