Leaning In to K-12

Higher ed lessons from Secretary Miguel Cardona and Nathan Grawe.

February 7, 2022

One of my goals for 2022 was to read more, especially books about higher ed. I started the year with Marjorie Hass’s A Leadership Guide for Women in Higher Education. Nathan Grawe’s The Agile College was next on my list, and I’ve just about finished it.

It feels like I’ve been recommending it to everyone I talk with in higher ed. It’s really good. The first section, which is a bit over a third of the book, is the doom and gloom that we already know. There are fewer 18-year-olds. Americans aren’t reproducing at the rates we used to. The Northeast will be one of the first regions to feel the pain of the enrollment cliff due to this birth dearth. And we are still being disrupted by the pandemic.

After subjecting us to higher education’s version of Scared Straight, Grawe moves into the second section of the book and focuses on highlighting promising practices to inspire us to make some pretty dramatic changes at our institutions.

Think of part one as a palate cleanser and part two as the delicious meal that you are about to enjoy. I’ll write more about Grawe’s book in the coming weeks, but in this post, I want to focus on one solution that we often ignore.

I’m in a college of education, and I work closely with my P-12 colleagues, so, when I think about solutions for higher ed, I can’t help but also think about high school and the P-12 sector. I’m working on a piece about the new SAT, and I am struck by how much the fear of the unknown high school preparation plays into last-ditch efforts at being relevant and outlining the value proposition of a standardized test like the SAT. It goes something like this—for parents, if you don’t think your high school is preparing your student for college and representing his/her true potential, count on a standardized test score to fill the gap, and, for admissions counselors, if the high school is unknown to you, you never know what that GPA really means. There might be rampant grade inflation. Better to rely on a test score than America’s high schools. It is insidious.

While the birth dearth is a real thing, Grawe also focuses on work that can be done to increase the percentage of college-going 18-year-olds, a much more labor-intensive proposition. This requires work on the parts of both higher ed and P-12, and a lot more collaboration along the P-16 continuum. It also requires that we find what my colleague Trinh Nguyen, director of the Office of Workforce Development in Boston, calls “the missing.” The missing are those—mostly high school students—who disappeared when COVID-19 struck. They didn’t officially withdraw from school, but they never came back, and they didn’t show up in the formal labor market, either. They are off the radar. They are missing.

Working together, what are higher education and K-12 doing to find these missing young people who never finished high school? And if and when we do find them, how do we help them finish? This requires innovative partnerships with employers, higher ed institutions and our local high schools. This could look like a co-op, apprenticeship or other paid work-based learning opportunities where our young people learn and earn both compensation and credit.

Last month, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona spoke to a few of these issues, urging us to work together to create “stronger college and career pathways between our pre-K through grade-12 systems, our two- and four-year colleges, and our workforce partners.” Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a team of folks representing higher ed, local employers and youth-serving nonprofits, Boston Public Schools, and the city of Boston. It is obvious that the needs are great.

Too often, the higher ed sector waits for K-12 to get the students college-ready, ready for our institutions. It is clear that we have to do a lot more wrapping around and leaning in to support our colleagues in the K-12 systems. They need us now more than ever, and we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and wait for them to be ready for us, because, according to Grawe, we also need them.

Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement and director of the Higher Education Administration program at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.


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