More California students graduate from high school, but far fewer graduate from college

February 26, 2018

The library at Los Angeles City College.

California’s high school graduation rates have increased significantly in recent years, but the percentage of those students who complete their college education continues to lag, with long-term implications for the state’s future.

That is the stark conclusion of a new report by California Competes, a policy and advocacy organization focusing on the state’s system of higher education.

“High school graduation rates are improving steadily, but college completion rates are not following suit,” the report states.

Citing projections that the state will lack more than 2 million college-educated workers by 2025, California Competes executive director Lande Ajose said, “when you have the kind of robust economic fortune California has, and yet you see gaps in what is occurring in terms of degree attainment, that is cause for concern.”

California’s high school graduation rate — measured by the percentage of students who begin in the 9th grade and graduate four years later — increased from 77 percent in 2010 to 84 percent in 2016.

But just over half of California’s college students — 55 percent — get their associate degrees at a community college in three years or bachelor’s degrees in six years. That figure includes completion rates for private institutions as well as the state’s public colleges and universities. Completion rates are lowest at the California Community Colleges, which serves a student body with more part-time and older students than the California State University or the University of California.

The gap between high school and college completion are even more dramatic when looked at by race and ethnicity. The report does not address the causes of the disparities.

The report also found that students with the lowest college completion rates enroll at a disproportionately high rate in private, for profit institutions. These institutions, the report notes, “have historically lower completion, and often job placement rates, than other segments.” Black students are twice as likely to enroll in these colleges as the state average.  As many as one in five black students are enrolled in these colleges. Latino students are far less likely to attend these colleges.  Of the Latinos attending college, seven percent are enrolled in for-profit colleges, the study said.

Although not described in the report, there are multiple reasons for the disparities between high school and college outcomes. K-12 education attendance is mandatory for students under age 18, while college attendance is not. Students typically get much more support and attention in high school than they receive in most colleges. High school graduates may not be academically prepared to handle college-level work, and on top of that may face financial obstacles. Many students attend college part-time and have to work to cover college costs, or in the case of older students, to support newly formed families.

To help improve graduation rates, California Competes recommends that California establish a statewide body of some kind to “inform state-level postsecondary and workforce planning through recommendations such as how best to invest state resources to close the degree gap.”

The report also says that California also needs a comprehensive education data system that links students from preschool to high school, and then to their postsecondary years and the workplace.

“Most residents and most voters assume that the state makes rational decisions based on information, and actually we don’t make rational decisions on information that we don’t have,” said Ajose.

The report also points to widening gender disparities at critical points on the education continuum.   Just over half of girls (51 percent) graduate from high school meeting the eligibility requirements to enter a CSU or UC campus, while only 40 percent of boys do. Male students have far lower college completion rates (52 percent) compared to women (58 percent).

African Americans experience the greatest educational gender disparities.  “Black women have much stronger educational outcomes than black men,” the report noted.


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