The Convergence of K-12 and Higher Education

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The Convergence of K-12 and Higher Education: Policies and Programs in a Changing Era

Christopher P. Loss and Patrick J. McGuinn



In a recent volume published by Harvard Education Press, The Convergence of K–12 and Higher Education: Policies and Programs in a Changing Era, we gathered a group of researchers to explore the “convergence” of US education policy fifty years after the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a mix of political, economic, demographic, and technological developments are transforming K-12 and higher education and, with the help of federal policy, narrowing the distance that has long separated the two sectors. The book provides a broad gauge view of the convergence process along with an analysis of the dynamics and policies that have shaped it in the past and that will continue to shape it in the future.

The ESEA and the HEA injected the federal government into the nation’s education system, upending the longstanding tradition of decentralized federal/education relations and of fragmented and locally controlled schools and colleges used to self-regulation and comparatively little government oversight. Slowly at first, then with greater urgency, the education sector’s relative freedom from federal involvement began to erode in the three decades prior to the passage of the ESEA and HEA. The laissez-faire relationship was picked apart by judge-made law and emergency legislative action during the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, before finally succumbing to the moral power of the African American Freedom Struggle and its crowing legislative victory, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VI of which “prohibit[ed] discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”[1] Each of these events, one building on the other in unexpected, unpredictable ways, buffeted and ultimately reshaped American education, setting the table for the enactment of the ESEA and the HEA.[2]

Situated as the opening wedge in President Lyndon Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty” — signed just months apart in the spring and summer of 1965 following his landslide election — many believed that the ESEA and the HEA would be the culminating act in the decades-long reconstruction of the federal/education partnership.[3] The laws were cast as wellsprings of opportunity that would provide millions of young people — especially poor young people — with a shot at a quality education and a better life. “Every child must be encouraged to get as much education as he has ability to take,” declared Johnson, a former schoolteacher-turned-politician from the poor Hill Country of Texas. “We want this not only for his sake — but for the nation’s sake. Nothing matters more to the future of the country … for freedom is fragile if citizens are ignorant.”[4]

Johnson’s signature education legislation provided millions and millions of young people with unprecedented support for improved educational opportunities and services. The substantive and political impact of both acts has been enormous. Last year, the federal government spent $38 billion on K-12 education and $76 billion on higher education, including student aid and research support.[5] Money only tells part of the story, however, and probably not the most important part. For the two laws have also restructured education governance and policymaking in ways that could never have been anticipated — bilingual education, special education, Title IX, and a bursting portfolio of financial aid instruments and categorical programs, to say nothing of all the new interests and institutions that organized to get their piece of the federal pie.[6] The ESEA and HEA generated their own policy feedback loops that inexorably spun out new interest and advocacy groups, new political coalitions and bureaucratic structures, and new demands from policymakers as well as from average Americans who wanted the best educational opportunities for their children too. In short, the ESEA and the HEA fueled the new politics of American education that this book explores. Over the past several decades, the precise dimensions of this new politics has come into focus as policymakers and the public alike, concerned over the perceived inadequacies of the education system, have shifted the scope of federal action from inputs and opportunity to outputs and accountability.[7]

The goal of our volume is to understand the new politics of education by examining the “convergence” of K-12 and higher education. With 90 percent of high school graduates now expressing interest in further education, it is no longer possible to think of one sector in the absence of the other. The essays reveal how K-12 and higher education are connected and what that connection means for students and their families, for educational institutions, for the workforce, and for our society and world. By thinking of both the education system and the policies that govern it as a single pipeline, albeit a circuitous one with many traps and leaks, the volume considers the mix of social, political, and economic forces that are pushing that system toward convergence. Today, variants of the K-12 education reform model are being applied to higher education even as the growing diversity of K-12 providers increasingly mimics that found in higher education. New collaborations and areas of cross-fertilization are connecting K-12 and higher education in creative ways that recommend this as a propitious time for an integrated and synthesized assessment of the sort provided here.

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[1] The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is available at

[2] For a synoptic account of both the ESEA and the HEA, see Hugh Davis Graham, The Uncertain Triumph: Federal Education Policy in the Kennedy and Johnson Years (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984). For the significance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on American education, see Gary Orfield, The Reconstruction of Southern Education: The Schools and the 1964 Civil Rights Act (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1969).

[3] President Lyndon B. Johnson, “State of the Union Address,” January 8, 1964,

[4] President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Great Society Speech,” May 22, 1964,

[5] Federal K-12 funding is available at Allie Bidwell, “Report: Federal Education Funding Plummets,” U.S. News & World Report, June 24, 2015, Fourteen billion dollars was allocated to Title I of ESEA in FY 2015, available at “Revised ESEA Title I LEA Allocations – FY 2015,” U.S. Department of Education, accessed August 8, 2018, Higher education funding is available at Federal and State Funding of Higher Education: A changing landscape, Pew Charitable Trusts, June 2015,

[6] Gareth Davies, See Government Grow: Education Politics from Johnson to Reagan (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007); John D. Skrentny, The Minority Rights Revolution (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).

[7] On the new politics described here, see Patrick J. McGuinn, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965–2005 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006); and Christopher P. Loss, Between Citizens and the State: The Politics of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012).