Back in August, I loaded up a truck in Nashville and headed north to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here at the University of Michigan, I have just completed my first semester as a doctoral student examining the connections between public policy and higher education. Although the hot days of summer in Nashville seem like a distant memory now, I have been reflecting on what I am taking away from the past few months of study and observation.

  1. An enduring disconnect between higher and K-12 education presents a troubling challenge to increasing levels of educational attainment. Even within the highly regarded School of Education here, there is a consensus that scholars and students struggle to find ways to communicate across the historic divide between people working to improve K-12 education and those focusing on higher education. As more states, including Tennessee, consider how to strengthen ties between students’ K-12 and college experiences, researchers and policymakers must develop more intentional lines of collaboration across these sectors. The Common Core State Standards present one compelling issue in which K-12 and higher education each have a large stake.
  2. Diversity has many meanings, and educators should account for all of them in their approach to teaching and research. We have rightly concerned ourselves with racial disparities in educational attainment, but those disparities reflect the socio-economic disparities that persist in our society. Tennessee is a place in which these disparities are easy to identify, and they span across racial identifications. The state is also increasingly home to people from other countries and religious backgrounds, and that diversity should be a source of strength in our schools and colleges.
  3. Even if college-going rates are on the rise, we need to focus on promoting college completion. In Tennessee, just over half of full time community college students completing their first year will return for their second year; within four years, only about one in four will complete their Associate’s degree. According to Complete College America, 56 percent of jobs in Tennessee by 2020 will require some form of educational credential beyond high school. Currently, only 31 percent of adults in the state have attained this level of education—a skills gap in which one- quarter of the state’s population falls. To promote higher college completion rates, we must first focus on improving the preparation students receive in our public schools.
  4. Education is a social justice issue. K-12 and higher education share a mission of enabling social advancement and a better life for people who work hard to attain the skills and knowledge they need to improve their lives and the quality of life in their communities. Higher education is a great economic benefit to individuals, but it also informs our citizenry and encourages productive participation in our democracy. Because education beyond high school for individuals serves to benefit all of our citizens, we all have a stake in supporting higher education and bearing some of its costs.

As David Van Zandt, president of the New School in New York City, recently stated, “Universities and colleges today are faced with the challenge of preparing students for a rapidly evolving global economy, while at the same time doing so in a cost effective way for our students.” Institutions of higher education can only accomplish this mission, however, if they serve students who are prepared to successfully complete college-level course of study and receive support from citizens who are prepared to invest in the future of their communities. Research that spans the K-12 and higher education sectors and facilitates communication among educators at all levels can inform us about how to make progress on these ambitious, necessary goals.