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A student from Santa Ana's Middle College High School graduation celebrates by decorating her mortarboard with flowers and an inspirational message.

Despite calls for more students to earn a college degree, a new study says most California 9th- graders will never achieve it.

While nearly two-thirds of today’s ninth graders are expected to enter a two or four-year college, a combination of weak high school preparation, poor counseling, and unclear direction at the college level will keep 70 percent from reaching the baccalaureate finish line, the Public Policy Institute of California report concludes.

“There’s a lot policymakers at various levels can do together to address the problem,” said Niu Gao, an author of the report.

The report found that many high school students are not well prepared for the rigors of the University of California and California State University systems because they don’t take courses that those systems expect. The report also dinged the state high school graduation standards for being weaker than what the UCs and Cal States ask for. And the report expressed concern that many high school students don’t take all their college-required courses even though they appear academically prepared.

For example, just 45 percent of high school graduates in 2016 completed the classes known as “A-G” courses required for entry to the University of California and California State University — the state’s two public university systems — which most high school graduates who enroll in a four-year college in California attend.

While some large districts, such as Los Angeles, Oakland and San Diego, now require students to complete these classes to graduate high school, other schools don’t offer the full range of these college preparatory courses.

The report noted that 10 to 14 percent of high schools did not offer the full A-G sequence in either math, science, English or social science. In other cases, students can graduate from high schools with Ds in their A-G courses, even though such grades aren’t good enough for the UCs and Cal States.

The state’s graduation requirements for high school students are also less demanding than the UCs and Cal States. While the two university systems require four years of English for entry, the state graduation standards call for three years. California is one of three states that asks students to complete only two years of math. The UCs and Cal States expect three years of math — including geometry and algebra 2 even though state standards say high school graduates need only pass algebra 1.

“We think high school graduation requirements are an important policy lever” in getting more students to take A-G courses, Gao said.

To arrive at some of their conclusions, the researchers relied on a dataset that included the academic records of roughly 141,000 high school graduates between 2007 and 2014. The data allowed the researchers to study which students went on to certain community colleges and Cal States and when they fell off the path toward a bachelor’s degree.

This sample group lags the state average in completing the necessary A-G courses, with only 36 percent completing the English requirements and 42 percent completing the math requirements with a C or higher.

As for when students in the sample group begin to slip, researchers found that 72 percent of students who didn’t complete their A-G requirements took at least one in math as freshmen, but just 43 percent did so as seniors. There are several reasons for this stalling effect, but the researchers say a big concern is that students simply do not enroll in the right courses to complete their A-G course requirements.

For example, only two-thirds of students who successfully pass algebra 1 take the next A–G course in the sequence (geometry or equivalent). Even when looking at students who earned an A or a B in their math class, about a third do not progress to the next level of math. “This is what we call a progression problem. … it reflects a mismatch between students’ academic potential and their course-taking patterns,” said Gao.

One area of reform is school advising, the authors wrote. “Our evidence suggests that non-academic factors, such as school placement policies and course counseling, may play an important role in student course-taking.” Gao said the 2015 California Mathematics Placement Act could address the variation in how schools advise students in math, but more work needs to be done to ensure all students are recognized for their talents.

Several reforms, including a just-passed state law reforming how community colleges measure the math and English skills of students and CSU’s changes to its remediation practices, may make major strides in seeing more students graduate, Gao said. That’s important because various reports say how students are placed in remedial courses — basic-skills classes that don’t count toward graduation but are required for students who show weak knowledge of math or English — can keep some from graduating with bachelor’s degrees.

In the sample group of students, Gao found that around 20 percent of well-prepared community college students were still placed in remedial courses — classes that research suggests lead to fewer students completing the courses they need to earn an associate’s or transfer to a UC or CSU.

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  1. David Faubion 3 days ago3 days ago

    Counseling for careers is essential, yet sorely lacking in my recent experience with higher ed. Emphasis on finding a major course of study has only begun recently due to the steep rise in tuition. In Germany, career counseling and career affinity surveys begin at the elementary level. Until the proper counseling takes hold in the USA, teachers can advise middle and high school students to insist upon it.

  2. el 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I don't understand: The report noted that 10 to 14 percent of high schools did not offer the full A-G sequence in either math, science, English or social science. I assume we are talking public high schools. Where are these schools, and how is this even possible in California? Is there a list of them? I assume they are also not WASC-accredited? Why do we allow them to be high schools if they don't offer a full … Read More

    I don’t understand:

    The report noted that 10 to 14 percent of high schools did not offer the full A-G sequence in either math, science, English or social science.

    I assume we are talking public high schools. Where are these schools, and how is this even possible in California? Is there a list of them? I assume they are also not WASC-accredited? Why do we allow them to be high schools if they don’t offer a full high school curriculum?

    I am in a rural county with some very small high schools, and even so, as far as I know they all offer the full sequence. Sometimes they have to get creative but there are always solutions.

    I am surprised that they didn’t mention problems with schools offering a full sequence of foreign language, given the shortage of those teachers. That can be a hard position to recruit these days especially for a small school.

    The report wasn’t linked in the article, so: http://www.ppic.org/publication/improving-college-pathways-in-california/

  3. Lloyd Parkerson 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    College is a way to simply separate the elitist potentials from the rest of the rabble. There is no purpose for it other than to keep the poor hoping and in debt while serving dreams of nice cars and wealth. I truly wonder how long this country would function without the debt that so many build up in hope of improving their lives while a large percent of graduates stay unemployed for many many, years after graduation.

  4. Monica 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    I agree with the overall notion of this article, students are very ill prepared for post secondary opportunities. Dare I say in California we have created a successful and replicable model to remedy this epidemic? Get Focused...Stay Focused!® (non-profit) is a high school program designed to develop the skills and knowledge that lead to high school graduation, college readiness and completion, and successful entry into the workforce. The beauty of the curriculum is that it … Read More

    I agree with the overall notion of this article, students are very ill prepared for post secondary opportunities. Dare I say in California we have created a successful and replicable model to remedy this epidemic? Get Focused…Stay Focused!® (non-profit) is a high school program designed to develop the skills and knowledge that lead to high school graduation, college readiness and completion, and successful entry into the workforce. The beauty of the curriculum is that it is offered for dual credit, is A – G approved, and takes students through a process of Who am I? What do I want? and How do I get it? Within weeks of the freshmen course they are exposed to financial literacy which allows them to have the “Ah-Ha!” moment that everything they are doing in high school will directly effort their future lifestyle and career efforts. To learn more please visit: http://www.getfocusedstayfocused.org.

  5. Wei-Li Sun 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Right now the UCs and CSUs are turning away massive numbers of applicants every year who are prepared for college. While I think everyone who aspires to attend college should be given the resources to achieve that goal, where should these students go if the UCs and CSUs don’t have the capacity to educate them?

  6. Fred Jones 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Why do we continue to assume the only path to success and enlightenment runs through a 4-year college? Why would we compel all high school students to get on that path, taking theoretical coursework that may turn them off or be totally irrelevant to their career pathway? We need to get real about our expectations of youth, our diverse economy and our educational policies. We should be encouraging a broad range of educational and economic … Read More

    Why do we continue to assume the only path to success and enlightenment runs through a 4-year college? Why would we compel all high school students to get on that path, taking theoretical coursework that may turn them off or be totally irrelevant to their career pathway?

    We need to get real about our expectations of youth, our diverse economy and our educational policies. We should be encouraging a broad range of educational and economic success, not a limited one that may not actually have any bearing on success in life outside of school.

    Replies

    • Mikhail Zinshteyn 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Hi, Fred. Thanks for reading and commenting. The report's authors justify their concern about bachelor's degrees for two reasons: the expected shortfall of 1 million BA-recipients in the coming decade and the fact that 85 percent of parents in a recent California poll say they want their kids to earn a BA eventually. PPIC is also concerned with non-BA college credentials and work certificates, but the aim of this report was to show how various … Read More

      Hi, Fred. Thanks for reading and commenting. The report’s authors justify their concern about bachelor’s degrees for two reasons: the expected shortfall of 1 million BA-recipients in the coming decade and the fact that 85 percent of parents in a recent California poll say they want their kids to earn a BA eventually. PPIC is also concerned with non-BA college credentials and work certificates, but the aim of this report was to show how various leaks in the so-called pipelines lead to more students missing out on what experts say is a strong education than is necessary. Even if a student doesn’t pursue a bachelor’s, the authors note taking A-G classes prepare students for community college and work, too. FWIW, our own reporting shows that there’s high demand for workers with non-BA college experiences.

      • Fred Jones 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        Mikhail A-G is not only a poor preparer for the world of work, it's a poor predictor of a student's success in college, too. So don't even get me started on the merits of this faculty-driven, theoretical, detached and largely irrelevant standard for high school curricula. As far as PPIC's 1 million BA/S figure, do you know how and when they started trotting that statistic out? I do. I read their original report over … Read More

        Mikhail

        A-G is not only a poor preparer for the world of work, it’s a poor predictor of a student’s success in college, too. So don’t even get me started on the merits of this faculty-driven, theoretical, detached and largely irrelevant standard for high school curricula.

        As far as PPIC’s 1 million BA/S figure, do you know how and when they started trotting that statistic out? I do. I read their original report over a decade ago, and their reasoning was a complete joke. I don’t have time to dig that old report up, now (I do have it in a file, though), but suffice it to say, here, that they illogically leapt from a 4-year college admissions demand spike to connecting that to an obvious need for such BA degrees in the labor market (doing nothing to correlate this spike in college applications and labor market realities). Their whole argument of 1 million jobs needing 4-year degrees is based on an obvious (dare I say fraudulent) leap in logic with zero corroborating evidence. And they’ve been resorting to that figure ever since, with nary a questioning word from the media.

        Here’s the bottom line: the push for more A-G and more college applicants is totally unrelated to labor market demands. It is a cultural bias that has long outlived it’s usefulness. And, in fact, in those large districts that have adopted it as a high school graduation requirement, it has been utterly devastating to a large percentage of their students (the LA Times did a nice piece about San Jose Unified’s train-wreck several years ago).

        Don’t you think it’s time to return some common sense reality to our educational policies and pursuits, and not merely resort to the standard of gauging success by how high a student progresses along the educational rungs?

      • Fred Jones 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

        Postscript: I was able to find PPIC's original labor market "trend projection" of needing 1 million workers with 4-year degrees (see my previous Comment for context). This particular excerpt from that pivotal report adequately captures the heart of their labor projections that PPIC has stuck to ever since, justifying their 1 million more degrees needed by 2025: “Our economic projections represent continuations of long-standing trends in California. For example, from 1990 to 2006, the … Read More

        Postscript: I was able to find PPIC’s original labor market “trend projection” of needing 1 million workers with 4-year degrees (see my previous Comment for context). This particular excerpt from that pivotal report adequately captures the heart of their labor projections that PPIC has stuck to ever since, justifying their 1 million more degrees needed by 2025:

        “Our economic projections represent continuations of long-standing trends in California. For example, from 1990 to 2006, the share of workers with a college degree increased from 25 to 34 percent; our projections indicate that this trend will continue at about the same pace, so that by 2025, 41 percent of workers will need to hold a college degree if the workforce is to meet the demands of the California economy.”

        So by PPIC’s logic, by 2050, 110% of our workforce will need a four-year degree, and by 2080, every Californian will need two, four-year degrees.

        Every high school student who wants to pursue a career that requires a 4-year or postgraduate degree should absolutely have access to those courses necessary to qualify for college admissions. Even those students who don’t necessarily need a college degree to pursue their career aspirations, but nevertheless want to go to college, should also have access to the A-G courses at their high school. Nobody is arguing that point.

        But for anyone to imply that this should be the default curriculum for all students, or, worse, that only a 4-year degree is the necessary ticket to economic success strains credulity. You would think the growing number of college graduates heavy laden with debt for unmarketable degrees would bring a halt to this nonsensical fantasy, which is more like a nightmare for far too many high schoolers struggling with theoretical academics (like Algebra) that have absolutely zero relevance to their lives.

        • Raoul 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

          Your well reasoned and well presented perspective is helpful and much appreciated, Fred. Eschewing the scientific principle that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, we are told repeatedly that since those who presently hold college degrees earn more on the average than those who do not, getting more people into and through college will increase their income and success. This reminds me of the flawed conclusions from the early observational medical studies of hormone … Read More

          Your well reasoned and well presented perspective is helpful and much appreciated, Fred.

          Eschewing the scientific principle that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, we are told repeatedly that since those who presently hold college degrees earn more on the average than those who do not, getting more people into and through college will increase their income and success. This reminds me of the flawed conclusions from the early observational medical studies of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in women. Because HRT correlated with reduced coronary heart disease (CHD), it was erroneously concluded that HRT caused reduced CHD. Later randomly controlled interventional studies correctly showed the opposite. The explanation: women from the observational studies who were financially well off, with opportunities for exercise and good nutrition, tended to self-select for HRT and though HRT was not good for cardiac health, the other unrelated beneficial factors present in their lives more than offset the adverse cardiovascular impact of HRT.

          I assume for the foreseeable future, we will still need folks like wildland firefighters, UPS drivers, welders, plumbers, electricians and many others who serve a vital and skilled need in our society, but who might wisely conclude that a four-year degree poses only a debt and time burden, and no offsetting advantage.