What if we told you that no matter how hard you tried, you only had a 5 percent chance of succeeding? What if it was your first day of kindergarten and we told you those were your odds of getting a college degree at a California university?
We don’t tell our kindergarteners that. In fact, we tell them the opposite. “You can be anything you want in life if you work hard enough.” But in California that’s just not the case for the nearly 4 million students who are Latino or African American. They have a 1 in 20 chance of graduating from a California public university. California’s prosperity is dependent on us changing these odds.
According to a recent report from the California Competes Council, California will need 5½ million new college degrees and technical certificates by the year 2025. We simply cannot meet these needs without improving results for our Latino and African American students, who are the vast majority of our student population.
Currently about two thirds of Latino and African American students make it to graduation. Only about one quarter of those students complete the coursework necessary to apply to a four-year California college. For those who make it to college, the results are just as poor. According to the Campaign for College Opportunity, only about 25 percent of Latino or African American students who enroll in a community college complete a degree, certificate, or transfer program. Many are stuck in remedial education or repeat the same courses year after year. In the CSU system, the outcomes are only slightly better.
At an individual level, these results consign millions of Californians to an ongoing cycle of poverty. College graduates will earn $1.3 million more over their lifetimes than high school diploma holders and have far higher rates of employment. At a state level, these results portend a full-blown economic crisis.
Yet, instead of investing in a pathway through college, California’s leaders seem more interested in investing in a pathway to prison. Over the past decade, they have increased spending for prisons even as they have cut our education system. This is clearly the wrong choice. For every $1 our state spends on higher education, the state yields $4.50 in return. Our leaders must begin to view K-12 and higher education as a single educational pathway and develop a long-term solution to the state budget crisis that prioritizes success in higher education.
Funding alone will not solve this crisis. By building a kindergarten-through-college data system, we can identify the investments with the greatest post-graduate payoff. For example, a recent Education Trust-West report found some high-poverty high schools with exceptionally high graduation and college enrollment rates. But without a statewide data system that connects K-12 to higher education, we cannot identify how many of those students successfully completed their degrees.
Finally, our leaders must make an equal commitment to both college access and completion so that students graduate with a degree, skill, or certificate that allows them to effectively join the workforce. Lawmakers should ensure that Latino and African American students have equitable access to rigorous college- and career-ready coursework in high school and sufficient financial aid. They must adopt the recommendations of the California Community College Student Success Task Force to ensure that all students have well-defined pathways to success in our community colleges and four-year universities.
The stakes are incredibly high. The old commercial from the United Negro College Fund stated that “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Our leaders must make a real commitment to the education investments and reforms necessary to build a true pathway through college for all children, especially those who have been traditionally underserved. If we waste the minds of another generation of Latino and African American students, we will sacrifice the future of our state.
Michele Siqueiros is executive director of The Campaign for College Opportunity, a broad-based, bipartisan coalition dedicated to ensuring the next generation of Californians has the opportunity to go to college and succeed. Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization that works to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement for students of color and students in poverty.