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Improving College Pathways in California

Niu Gao, Hans Johnson | November 2017

Summary

Far too many California students are falling off the pathway to and through college. At current rates of high school and college completion, only about 30 percent of California 9th graders will earn a bachelor’s degree, a rate that is insufficient for an economy that increasingly demands more highly educated workers.

In this study, we examine college pathways in high school, at California’s community colleges, and at California State University (CSU). We find that most students exit the pathway in the last two years of high school or the first two years of college. In addition, we find

  • Most of California’s high school graduates are not prepared for college. Even with significant increases over the past ten years, only 45 percent of the graduating class of 2016 complete the college preparatory courses—known as the a–g courses—required to be considered for admission to CSU or the University of California. Completion of these courses is also a strong indicator of success in community colleges. Math and English are critical subject areas.
  • Even academically prepared students are falling off the pathway. Among our sample of high schools, students who successfully pass the first college preparatory math course, 34 percent do not take the next one—even though 13 percent earned an A and 22 percent a B in the class. In community colleges, close to 20 percent of well-prepared students are directed toward developmental—remedial—courses, which have been shown to slow progress.
  • Eliminating progression problems in our sample of high schools would increase the a–g completion rate by 18 percentage points. More importantly, it would reduce racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in student outcomes. Addressing progression problems in college would translate to 28 percent more community college transfers and 16 percent more students earning a bachelor’s degree.
  • Students historically underrepresented in higher education are more likely to drop off the pathway at every stage. In high school, the difference in math completion rates between the highest performing group (Asian American students) and the lowest (African American and Latino students) more than doubles by graduation. At CSU, African American students are much more likely to drop out in their first two years (35%) than are Asian American students (19%).
  • CSU does not have adequate capacity to enroll qualified students. Eligibility targets were set 50 years ago and do not reflect current changes in the state’s economy or education system. In the past fouryears, CSU has turned away more than 69,000 qualified California high school graduates, who have completed the a–g course requirements. With more high school graduates expected to complete the a–g sequence, CSU’s capacity constraints are likely to limit students’ access to higher education.

To improve the pathway to and through college, we recommend a number of policy actions, including updating high school graduation requirements and increasing the number of a–g approved courses. At every stage, improvements in academic counseling and course placement policies will help students stay on the path. Capacity improvements at CSU are essential. Finally, California needs a statewide longitudinal database that tracks individual student progress from kindergarten through college graduation in order to improve systems and assess outcomes more effectively.

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