PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · November 27, 2017

Less than a Third of State’s 9th Graders Likely to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

Even Academically Prepared Students Fall Off the College Pathway

SAN FRANCISCO, November 27, 2017—Only about 30 percent of California 9th graders are expected to earn a bachelor’s degree, with the vast majority falling off the path to college in the last two years of high school or the first two years of college. A report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows that most California high school graduates do not complete the college preparatory courses required for admission to the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) systems. But preparation alone does not explain why students do not progress to and through college: even academically prepared students are falling off the college pathway.

The report analyzes when students leave the path to college, which students leave, and the major impediments to success. It is based on a large longitudinal sample of high school students, as well as statewide data. The report finds that:

  • Even with gains made in recent years, only 45 percent of the graduating class of 2016 completed the a–g courses required to be considered for admission to CSU or UC. Completion of these courses is also a strong indicator of future college success.
  • A significant number of academically prepared students also do not make it to or through college. Among students in the sample who successfully passed the first college prep math course, 34 percent did not take the next one—even though 13 percent earned an A and 22 percent a B in the class. High school course placement policies, a lack of effective counseling, and California’s high school graduation requirements—which lag those of other states—all likely play a role in the problem. In community college, nearly 20 percent of well-prepared students are directed toward developmental—or remedial—courses, which have been shown to slow progress.
  • Students historically underrepresented in higher education are more likely to drop off the college pathway at every stage. In the sample of high schools, the difference in math completion rates between the highest-performing group (Asian American students) and the lowest-performing groups (African American and Latino students) more than doubles by graduation. At CSU, African American students are much more likely to drop out in the first two years (35%) than are Asian American students (19%).
  • CSU lacks adequate capacity to enroll qualified students. In the past four years, CSU has turned away more than 69,000 qualified California high school graduates who completed the a–g course requirements.

“Widespread progression problems in high schools are keeping even academically prepared students from advancing to the next level of college prep coursework,” said Niu Gao, PPIC research fellow and coauthor of the report. “Similar problems exist in community colleges, where well-prepared students do not take the transfer-level courses that would move them toward college completion.”

The report describes policy actions to improve college pathways—an urgent issue at a time when the state faces a shortfall of highly educated workers. At the high school level, the state should consider updating high school graduation requirements. California lags behind other states—it is one of the few that require just two years of math for high school graduation—and this affects the courses students take. School districts need to increase the number of a–g approved courses, encourage more high school seniors to take these courses, and revise course placement policies to help nudge students to stay on track.

At the college level, community colleges should continue efforts to develop more accurate placement systems and establish an effective academic counseling and support system. Expanding capacity at CSU is essential, as well. Finally, California needs a statewide longitudinal database to track individual student progress from kindergarten through college graduation to evaluate reforms, improve systems, and assess outcomes more effectively.

The report is titled Improving College Pathways in California. It is coauthored by Hans Johnson, director of the PPIC Higher Education Center and a senior PPIC fellow.

The report is supported with funding from the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the James Irvine Foundation, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, and the Sutton Family Fund.


The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. We are a public charity. We do not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor do we endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office. Research publications reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funders or of the staff, officers, advisory councils, or board of directors of the Public Policy Institute of California.