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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

New Report Challenges Us to Get Ready for College

Tough Choices or Tough Times -- a new report by the Commission of the Skills of the American Workforce -- holds huge implications for the transition from high school to postsecondary education.

The bipartisan Commission of twenty-six members includes two former Secretaries of the U.S. Dept. of Labor, a former Governor, New York City Mayor Bloomberg, and other notables. Its main concern is the strong growth of highly skilled workers at low wages in other nations.

The report argues that strong growth in cheap labor elsewhere, poses a radically new challenge to American college skill levels and college preparation. The report calls for a high stakes national exam at age sixteen in order to impel students to make proper choices regarding postsecondary programs or colleges.

Also, the report recommends better academic preparation -- less memorization and more analytical skills in high school that will provide a better match with what is taught in college. The proposed national exam -- at age sixteen-- supports the idea that starting college sooner can be better for many students.

The report argues for curriculum changes that would prescribe reading that matters more for college success. The senior year in high school would not exist for more students who do not benefit from it now. And senior high school would increasingly focus on college preparation.

For more on the senior year issue, see my 2001 monograph, Overcoming the High School Senior Slump: New Education Policies at


My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

My Quick Thoughts Re Defending the Community College Equity Agenda

A new collection of essays entitled Defending the Community College Equity Agenda has just been published by Johns Hopkins University Press. The collection was edited by Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center, at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Vanessa Smith Morest, assistant director of the center.

The book provides a comprehensive overview of the mixed success of community colleges in creating student access and college completion. This is a first-rate, research-based book and a major contribution to the literature. The authors define the equity agenda in higher education as made up of three components: equity in college preparation, access to college, and success in college -- satisfying college goals.

The authors also cover college and student finance issues and focus on students as well. Similar to many other studies, the authors conclude that community colleges do a lot better on student access than success. For example, after 8 years only 20% of black community college students get a degree or certificate.

But several other studies stress that there are many things students can do to increase their chances for college completion. Students should begin community college right after high school and stay in school year round in order to improve college persistence. This means enrolling in summer school. So starting sooner is better and a commitment to learning throughout the year is helpful. These enrollment patterns are particularly useful for first-generation students who have little support for college, particularly family, that is vital keeping them in college continuously.


My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Improving Rates of College Completion Requires Teamwork

This week, the Chronicle of Higher Education offers a good overview of the fundamental causes of and solutions for the lack of college preparation.

The opinion piece by Michael Cohen et al entitled A Coordinated Effort to Prepare Students for College stresses that high schools cannot solve under preparation alone. They need help from postsecondary education through a joint effort.

Inadequate college preparedness is particularly acute for first- generation students who lack college support, particularly from family. Often these students must work and consequently have a time management problem. They attend community colleges and do not stay in school year round.

Fortunately, there are foundation initiatives to help secondary schools and colleges work together. The Lumina Foundation is funding Achieving the Dream that will help build student commitment to learning and overcome bad predictors for college completion. The Ford Foundation has a new venture Community College Bridges to Opportunity Initiative that focuses upon family support and adult learners. Finally, the Met Life Foundation Initiative on Student Success has recognized sixteen community colleges that have succeeded with first generation students, overcome low-completion student predictors, and improved time management.

Both high school and colleges must work together to significantly enhance the academic preparation and commitment to learning of future and current college students.


My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

College Readiness Begets College Persistence Which Begets College Success

Signaling theory suggests that streamlined and aligned high quality and appropriate content messages have a positive impact on learning and achievement. Crucial aspects of appropriate signals and incentives are simplicity, clarity and consistency .

Consistency is enhanced when signals, incentives, and institutional policies are aligned. For example, the alignment of format and content of state and local student assessments with SAT I.

Incoherent and vague signals and incentives sent to secondary school students causes inadequate student preparation for postsecondary school. Minority students are often placed in low academic high school courses and tracks that decrease both motivation and academic preparation.

In the Chicago area counselors do not want to give low-achieving students negative information about their future prospects, so they advocate college for all without stressing necessary academic preparation. Since it is easy to enter so many four-year and two-year schools, there are scant incentives to work hard in high school. Thus, too many students are not ready for college.

Once students enroll in broad access institutions they face challenging placement exams, faculty expectations, and general education/graduation requirements that they often did not know about in high school. This ignorance exacerbates risk factors in college which often reduce rates of college completion.

Students end up taking remedial non-credit courses that better signals may have prevented, such as the fifty-five percent failure rate of placement exams by first year students entering the nineteen-campus California State University system from high school.

Combined and reinforcing signals by postsecondary education and K12 will improve college knowledge that is essential for student aspiration and college preparation.

College knowledge is acquired and possessed unequally among students and families of different social classes and racial/ethnic backgrounds. College knowledge by secondary school students and parents includes knowledge of tuition, curricular requirements, placement tests, and admission procedures and selection criteria. A high school's culture of college readiness cannot be fully measured via simple, visible, or discrete indices such as standardized test scores, honors and advance placement courses, and postsecondary placement. Secondary school collegiate culture also encompasses the less tangible, more elusive qualities that can best be described through narratives that reveal the sustaining values or ethos of a high school.

Signals and incentives sent along either through a separate postsecondary education or K12 system will result in less student preparation, less college knowledge, and less college success.

Strong consistent signals sent by both levels of education have positive impacts on college completion, while confusing or weak signals provide a negative influence.

Combined efforts between K12 and postsecondary especially help disadvantaged students, while honors and AP students can succeed with less K16 cooperation. Teachers can be a crucial source of college knowledge, but students in non-honors courses have less communication about college. Clear and consistent signals are related to positive outcomes such as less remediation and more completion of a student's desired postsecondary program.

Joint efforts between postsecondary and lower education are crucial in creating positive outcomes for more students, particularly those from economically disadvantaged families, families in which a parent did not attend college, and those students who face stigmatization and racism as they proceed through school.

If there is no K-16 interaction and reinforcement of signals, the more advantaged students will receive ample signals and incentives to prepare for postsecondary education. But the more educationally disadvantaged high school graduates will enroll at lower rates, require remediation, and experience lower postsecondary completion rates.

For more information on this signaling theory see Michael Kirst and Andrea Venezia , From High School to College, Jossey Bass, 2004. Also, please visit us at MyCollegePuzzle.


My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

College Success is Contingent on College Readiness. The College Dream in America Betrayed. But Who Cares?

Every year, interspersed with end-of-school-year and graduation news stories, there is a spate of stories about stressed-out students and parents, competitive college admissions, a high school wall filled with college-rejection letters, the new SAT, expensive tuition and onerous high-school course loads.

And from reading local newspapers about the rarified atmosphere in Palo Alto schools, one gets the impression that this is the typical experience for college-bound high-school students across the nation.

Nothing could be further from the truth, because about 70 percent of high-school graduates go on to college within two years of graduation -- although many must do some catch-up remedial work once they get there.

I once directed a seven-year study (Stanford University's Bridge Project) that culminated in a popular report: Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations.

We found that 80 percent of the U.S. students attend postsecondary institutions that accept all qualified applicants (most of the California State University system) or are open enrollment.

About 40 percent of first-time freshman enroll in a community college that accepts all applicants over 18.

The main initial problem these students face is failing a placement exam and having to enroll in remedial courses to start their higher-education experience. The California State University remediation rate is nearly 60 percent for incoming freshmen, and community-college remediation rates are even higher. Entering students are not prepared for college.

California State universities admit more than 90 percent of students without looking at SAT scores because sufficient grades qualify the student for admission. Many four-year institutions around the United States are much easier to get into than Cal State.

Tuition and fees for a full-time student are relatively low. But many low-income college students need aid and do not know how to apply for federal or state assistance, as the number of counselors advising students in California is near the bottom nationwide.

Eighty percent of college-bound minority students in California enroll in community colleges. The roughly 150 most selective colleges in the United States enroll less than 12 percent of their students from below the median income of U.S. families.

When UC cuts a few thousand admitted students because of state budget cuts, I am besieged with media phone calls asking for comment. When California community colleges cut 100,000 students, no one calls-- no one seems to care.

Many of these students have family responsibilities, attend only part-time and stop out to earn more money for their education. Forty-five percent of California's K12 public-school students are Latino, and this percentage increases for the foreseeable future. There are four times as many Latino students in community colleges as there are in UC, the California State universities and all private colleges in California combined.

I also question how stressed out most high-school seniors really are from hard academic work. UCLA surveys a national sample of incoming freshmen at four-year (not two-year) colleges each year. Nearly every year the hours of study by high-school seniors go down and grades go up. Sixty-five percent of high-school seniors report doing five hours or less homework per week. In 1983, 47 percent did six hours of homework per week, but by 2002, only 35 percent did. High-school students do work a lot, but much of it is in off campus jobs at 15 hours per week or more.

My study reveals that these students at broad-access colleges -- such as California State universities and community colleges -- do not receive clear signals about college readiness. They believe community colleges must accept anyone, and view it as a souped-up high school. They do not realize community colleges design their courses to qualify for transfer to University of California credit.

Students at minimally selective four-year colleges usually do not take math in their senior year of high school, and think Cs and Bs in high school are sufficient for freshman work. They should be spending their senior year getting ready for college.

Only 22 percent of entering community-college students who want a four-year degree actually get one, nationwide. At minimally selective four-year colleges, fewer than half finish their degree. Too many students are not staying in college.

Yet, the top 15 percent of U.S. students are academically prepared and more than 85 percent of them are staying in college. I have observed that in my 36 years at Stanford entering freshmen keep getting better academically. Their research skills are impressive.

But 88 percent of eighth graders want a college degree, since they know college will help them in a competitive job market. Yet, unless broad access postsecondary education and high schools work more closely together to help them succeed, their college dreams will evaporate.

Also, please visit us at MyCollegePuzzle.


My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Students Have Misconceptions About College Preparation And Being Ready for College

Here are ten myths that students need to know about college preparation and staying in college. These come from a large study called


My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Impediments to College Success: the Disjuncture Between Secondary and Postsecondary Education

The fissure between lower and higher education in the United States limits success in college and college completion after students enter college.

The disjuncture stems, in part, from the laudable way the nation created two mass education systems to deliver curriculum for both K12 and higher education. In 1890 there was no organized system or common standards for college admission. Nearly half the colleges had either low entrance requirements or none at all. Some colleges accepted students from pre-approved secondary schools or used their own exams.

High school educators wanted a more uniform and less haphazard system. In 1892 the National Education Association appointed the first blue ribbon education commission to recommend secondary school academic standards. The commission included five college presidents, three high school principals, a college professor and the U.S. Commissioner of Education. The Committee of Ten was chaired by Charles W. Eliot, President of Harvard.

The committee envisioned only a tiny proportion of high school graduates going on to college. But the report recommended all pupils should be prepared for any path in life by melding the objectives of liberal education (i.e. a curriculum of rich content) and mental discipline (i.e. the training of the mind). The Committee of Ten supported adding subjects like history, the sciences, and classical languages (e.g. Latin) that would be taught through active learning instead of memorization. The report was attacked for its support of an academic education for all students, and some critics praised the European approach of different schools based on career choices of pre-teens.

The report by the Committee of Ten influenced education policy and led to the College Examination Board with its common college examination for diverse colleges. But by 1918 a new report with a very different vision appeared, called the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. High school enrollments were expanding and many students were viewed as incapable of learning the traditional academic curriculum.

The Cardinal Principles were to be a blueprint for social efficiency, and students should be offered vocational training and courses on family life, good health, citizenship, ethical character, and the worthy use of leisure. Students were given intelligence tests to put them in the appropriate academic track. The expanded and differentiated curriculum would retain more bored secondary students and better adapt them to a changing society.

Traditional academic subjects and pedagogy were de-emphasized, but courses multiplied to provide something practical and engaging that would retain students in high school. This influential report helped spawn a shopping mall high school that lacked coherence and was not focused upon adequate college preparation for most students. The National Commission starting around 1950 has tried to push the high school curriculum closer to the 1893 Committee of Ten vision with mixed results. In sum, the American comprehensive high school was designed for many, conflicting purposes, and did not focus primarily on college preparation.

The current comprehensive high school was designed to include vocational education, the worthy use of leisure, and many elective courses. High quality college preparation could be relegated to a minority of students in a track of challenging courses that now feature advanced placement and honors.

Over time, the chasm between secondary and postsecondary education in the United States has grown greater than that in many other industrialized nations. But before the development of comprehensive high schools, U.S. colleges and universities did play an important role in influencing high school curriculum. In 1900, for example, the College Board set uniform standards for each academic subject and issued a syllabus to help high school students prepare for college entrance subject-matter examinations. Soon after, the University of California began to accredit high schools to make sure that their curricula were adequate for university preparation. As the number of high schools grew rapidly, however, universities could no longer do accreditation. After the number of postsecondary institutions expanded greatly, the regional high school accrediting associations split with higher education accreditation to lessen the workload, but doing so de-emphasized K16 alignment.

Moreover, in the years after World War II, the notion of academic standards shared across the sectors vanished. Aptitude tests like the SAT replaced subject-matter standards for college admission, and secondary schools placed more emphasis on elective courses in nonacademic areas. Today, K12 faculty and college faculty may belong to the same discipline-based professional organizations, but they rarely meet to discuss curricular alignment. K12 policymakers and higher education policymakers cross paths even less often. It was not until 1982 that the Carnegie Foundation organized the first national meeting ever held between K12 state school superintendents and college presidents to discuss the growing chasm between them.

Many groups mediate between high schools and colleges, but they have competing agendas that tend to work against curricular alignment. The number and influence of mediating groups, such as College Board, Educational Testing Service, and American College Testing Program (ACT), is, for Stocking, an indicator of the amount of disorder and confusion that has grown through the years in the relationship between the school and the university in America.

Today the only nationally aligned standards effort across the sectors is the AP program, a stalactite that extends from universities, which dictate the course syllabus and exam. The International Baccalaureate (IB) program attempts to align secondary and postsecondary curriculum, but its scope is limited.
Some of the fastest growing courses are college courses in high school such as AP and remedial education in postsecondary education. This suggests that the better high school students are becoming more closely aligned with higher education through AP and IB, but the weaker students are becoming more disconnected.

Beyond the AP and IB programs, there are no major efforts to provide curricular coherence and sequencing across secondary schools . Nor has anyone proposed a conception of liberal education that relates the academic content of the secondary schools to the first two years of college. Instead, students face an eclectic academic muddle after 9th grade until they select a college major.

Also, please visit us at MyCollegePuzzle.


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