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Press Release · April 27, 2016

Many Students Will Win, Others Will Lose With ‘College Prep for All’ Policy

San Diego Study Shows More Students Poised to Fulfill UC, CSU Requirements, But More May Fail To Graduate

SAN FRANCISCO, April 27, 2016—A high school graduation requirement that makes college preparatory courses mandatory for all students is likely to help many students but damage the prospects of others, according to a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

An analysis of the San Diego Unified School District’s class of 2016—the district’s first class required to complete college prep coursework—shows that roughly 10 percent more students may become eligible to apply to the University of California (UC) or the California State University (CSU) because they have completed the classes with a grade of C or higher. And students with the lowest likelihood of completing the requirement have shown the greatest increases in course completion, earning grades of at least a D.

But 16 percent more San Diego students may fail to graduate from high school because of the requirements. Overall, about 27 percent of students are unlikely to get diplomas because they were unable to both complete the college prep courses and meet the grade point average requirement of a cumulative 2.0. English Learners, Latino and African American students, and those with special needs are particularly at risk.

“This reform appears to make college possible for many historically underserved students,” said report coauthor Julian Betts, PPIC adjunct fellow and economics professor at the University of California, San Diego. “But it also risks denying diplomas to many of the very students it is designed to help.”

San Diego, the state’s second-largest district, is one of several major urban school districts—including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland—that recently made it mandatory for students to complete the a-g sequence of classes required for admission to UC or CSU. These districts allow grades of D or higher, rather than the C or higher grades required by the state universities.

The report compares San Diego data with that of Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified School Districts—whose policies closely parallel San Diego’s—to create a broader picture of the challenges and benefits of the policy, which is designed to expand access to college prep classes among underserved students.

The analysis shows that San Diego students are indeed taking more college prep courses. As many as 59 percent of students in the class of 2016 are on track to be eligible for admission to the state’s public universities. By comparison, 47.9 percent fulfilled the requirements for UC and CSU in 2014.

However, the students expected to have trouble completing these courses by the end of the year include over half of both English Learners and those receiving special education services. Factoring in the requirement of a 2.0 grade point average, the projected June graduation rate of the class of 2016 is 72 percent—far below the 2014 graduation rate of 89.7 percent.

The report notes that during the 2015-16 school year the district has implemented online courses to help students make up missed classes or boost grades, and that some students may finish coursework over the summer. These efforts may raise the graduation rate closer to previous levels.

The report points out that San Diego has one of the highest graduation rates among large urban districts in California, yet it has faced considerable challenges in helping students meet the new graduation goals. San Francisco and Los Angeles face similar challenges. The authors make a series of recommendations to adjust the policy so that it supports lower-achieving students—who otherwise may never receive the diplomas they need to find employment, join the military, or attend universities outside the UC and CSU systems.

First, districts can identify students at risk of not completing the courses, provide support for them—not only in high school but as early as elementary school—and offer more opportunities to take relevant courses. San Diego’s expansion of language course offerings in middle school and in summer school for high school students are steps in that direction. Second, districts should ensure adequate funding to provide these services. And finally, districts should consider how to reconcile “college prep for all” with the state education code, which requires alternative pathways to a high school diploma, including a career and technical education route.

The report is titled College Prep for All: Will San Diego Students Meet Challenging New Graduation Requirements? The coauthors are Sam Young, UCSD doctoral candidate in the economics department; Andrew Zau, senior statistician for the San Diego Education Research Alliance in the UCSD economics department; and Karen Volz Bachofer, director of the San Diego Education Research Alliance.


PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.