The deficiencies in America's higher-education system are no secret. We know from Academically Adrift, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, that college students experience little gain in skills and knowledge during their first two years of college and only marginal gains after that. This should not have been so surprising; chances are that many of those students were poorly prepared to begin with. In the most recent report of the Program for International Student Assessment, released in 2009, American students ranked well below those in a significant number of other industrialized nations in such critical areas as reading, science, and math.

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This appalling situation did not develop overnight and will not be resolved in the near future. However, there is hope. State legislators could enact two changes that would bring major long-term academic gains with no additional cost to the taxpayer: mandating full-day education for all 3- and 4-year-olds, and eliminating the 12th grade to free up funds to pay for the additional early-childhood education. The new and improved public-school system would begin with preschool and conclude with 11th grade.

If young children do not receive sufficient nurturing, nutrition, interaction, and stimulation, they may have deficiencies that will affect the rest of their lives.

What do those changes have to do with higher education? Simply everything.

The Center on the Developing Child, at Harvard University, found that in the first few years of life, 700 neuron connections are formed every second. If children do not receive sufficient nurturing, nutrition, interaction, and stimulation during this period of remarkable growth, they may have deficiencies that will affect the rest of their lives.

Yet public policy requires no action to encourage a child's maximum development in those crucial years.

So children who are culturally or economically deprived may arrive at kindergarten already "left behind." But what if all children during their very early years were given the tools to be successful in the school environment? They would be better able to make good choices, follow a productive path, and have greater chance of success in their college years.

As a matter of economic policy, this change could substantially reduce expenses, at all levels, associated with remedial education and student dropouts—not to mention potential longer-term savings in reduced welfare, incarceration, and Medicaid costs.

Indeed, a fully financed mandatory early-childhood-education program would do more to change the culture and academic outcomes of students than any other area of reform.

Step two of the formula for improving education at every level in the United States is to eliminate the 12th grade. It is the least productive and most expensive of all grades, and the money saved by getting rid of it would pay for early-childhood programs, which are the most productive and least expensive.

Most students have, for all practical purposes, completed graduation requirements by the end of the 11th grade. Some small percentage of them take advanced-placement courses for college credit, but the vast majority take electives and/or work part time. Requiring students to complete secondary-school education by the end of 11th grade would transfer scarce resources to where they will do the most long-term good—at the beginning of the process that should lead a well-prepared child to college.

Linus D. Wright was a U.S. under secretary of education in the Reagan administration.