Only about 30% of California 9th graders are expected to earn a bachelor’s degree—a startling statistic in a state that faces a shortfall of college graduates. A new PPIC report finds that the vast majority fall off the path to a college degree in the last two years of high school or the first two years of college.
Report coauthor Niu Gao presented the analysis in Sacramento last week, along with recommendations for tackling the problem. Among them: updating high school graduation requirements, offering more of the college preparatory courses required for admission to California State University (CSU) or the University of California (UC), and improving placement policies in both high schools and community colleges to ensure that students take the classes needed to progress.
Gao’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion among experts who work in this area. In a conversation moderated by Hans Johnson—report coauthor, and director and senior fellow at the PPIC Higher Education Center—participants touched on challenges, as well as potential solutions.
Jorge A. Aguilar, superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District, noted that while more students are completing college prep courses—known as a–g courses—many aren’t making it to or through college. Part of the problem, he said, is the “fundamental disconnect between K–12 and higher education.” Having worked in both sectors, he noted there are insufficient incentives for school districts to focus on persistence in higher education and for higher education to work with K–12 on the issue.
Kimberly Rodriguez, chief education advisor to Kevin de León, state senate president pro tempore, addressed one of the report’s key recommendations: increasing state high school graduation requirements in math. She noted that requiring a–g courses for graduation has been much discussed at the state level.
“The biggest barrier has always been money,” she said. “Because once you require it, the state is on the hook.” Implementation is also complicated, she said, requiring planning and attention to infrastructure—as districts that have already adopted these requirements have found.
The third panelist, Jim Dragna, talked about a promising initiative. Known as the “graduation czar” at CSU Sacramento, he supervises the Finish in Four program. Students are asked to pledge to take 15 credits a semester—the number needed to graduate in four years—and are provided extra resources to ensure they stay on track.
“Student progression problems have been with us so long that they’ve become part of the culture,” he said. So, he continued, “we tackled the culture.”