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Serving California’s Diverse College Students

Sergio Sanchez, Hans Johnson February 27, 2019

As part of his cradle-to-career initiative, Governor Newsom has emphasized higher education as a key means of expanding Californians’ social and economic opportunities. From proposing more higher education funding in this year’s budget to supporting two years of free tuition for first-time community college students, many of his initiatives are focused on making college accessible and affordable to more of the state’s residents. For these initiatives to succeed, it will be essential to enroll a broad array of students—in particular, those who have been historically underserved in higher education–and to ensure that more students successfully complete college.

The good news is that the state is enrolling a diverse set of students, especially at the two largest systems, California State University (CSU) and the California community colleges (CCC). Overall, these two systems closely reflect the racial and ethnic make-up of California’s high school population—which is critical given that these two systems are key entry points for African American, Latino, low-income, and first generation college students. UC and private nonprofit colleges in California serve diverse populations, including more first generation and low-income students than their peer institutions in the rest of the country, but they do not reflect the full ethnic diversity of the state’s high school graduates.

More challenging is helping students to successfully complete a four-year degree. Graduation rates are very high at UC and at most private nonprofit colleges. At CSU, graduation rates have improved dramatically, but even so about 40% of students do not earn a degree within six years. Most students who enter community colleges with the intent to transfer to a four-year college never do so. Transfer rates are especially low for African American and Latino students.

Both CSU and CCC have launched new policies and programs that hold the promise of improving transfer and reducing inequities. For example, community college reforms in developmental—also known as remedial—education will lead to substantial increases in the share of students taking college-level courses in English and math. The Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) program is making the transition to California State Universities much more straightforward. And the new Guided Pathways initiative provides support services and clear course-taking patterns to community college students to promote success.

These are important steps in the right direction. Renewed interest in Sacramento regarding higher education will help. And Californians are well aware of the stakes. A majority of adults in California (56%) say a four-year college degree is very important for economic and financial success in today’s economy, and 75% believe California’s higher education system is very important to the quality of life and economic vitality of the state.

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