Challenge for California Schools

Student studying

Most high school students want to go to college.  In fact, most high school students say they expect to earn at least a bachelor’s degree.  A national survey in 2002 found that 72 percent of high school sophomores expected to obtain at least a bachelor’s degree, and 10 percent did not have definite expectations, so only 18 percent definitely did not expect to earn a bachelor’s degree. (1)  National surveys also show that the percentage of high school students who expect to graduate from college has grown significantly since the 1980s.  Between 1981-82 and 2003-04, the share of high school seniors who expected to attain at least a bachelor’s degree rose from 35 to 69 percent. (2)

There are very good reasons why so many students say they want college degrees.  First, college is a great investment, financially.  Many high-paying jobs require college degrees, so college graduates earn substantially more than high school graduates, on average.  Of course, it takes time and money to get a college degree.  But economists estimate that the yield on investment in a college education has generally been about 10 percent a year – much better than putting money in a bank savings account!  This payoff is very similar for males and females, and for all racial and ethnic groups. (3)  The financial return to college degrees increased steadily since the 1980s, indicating strong and growing demand for college graduates in the labor market. (4)

Money is not the only reason to go to college.  A college education also produces other benefits.  People who have been to college are generally healthier and live longer. (5)  College improves a person’s ability to read, write, think, and understand the world.  College graduates are more likely to vote, and to participate in the civic life of their communities. (6)

A shortage of college graduates could threaten the nation’s economic and civic well-being, and there is evidence that such a shortage may happen.  Although the percentage of high school graduates who go directly to college has been increasing, the number who complete college degrees has risen more slowly. (7)  The shortage of college graduates could be especially acute in California, which currently ranks 48th among the states in the share of high school graduates who enter a four-year college, (8) and 39th in the share who earn a bachelor’s degree within six years after high school. (9)

In California and nationally, college-going rates are higher for affluent, white, and Asian students, and correspondingly lower for less affluent, Latino, and African American students. (10)  There are many reasons for these differences.  Some of the reasons include access to information about the benefits to college, what the requirements are, and how to apply for admission and financial aid.  Other reasons have to do with the amount of support and encouragement students receive from teachers, counselors, and administrators.

Schools have a big part to play in providing college-going information, support, and encouragement to students.   But schools that serve mainly low-income students of color often have not been able to provide these resources. (11)  Counseling, courses that meet university requirements, and advanced academic courses are relatively lacking in these schools.

It is not realistic to expect that every student will attend college and earn a degree — at least not immediately after high school.  Some will choose to work for a few years after high school, and perhaps return later to postsecondary education.  Some will start college and decide they do not want to continue.

But a large majority of students do say they want and expect to earn a college degree.  Schools should honor these aspirations by providing the necessary information, support, encouragement, and access to the courses that colleges require.

How schools can do that is what this web site is all about.


1 Steven J. Ingels, Laura J. Burns, Xianglei Chen, Emily F. Cataldi, and Stephanie Charleston, A Profile of the American High School Sophomore in 2002:  Initial Results from the Base Year of the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 (NCES 2005– 338,  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2005).

2. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2006 (NCES 2006-071, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2006), Indicator 23.

3. Lisa Barrow and Cecilia E. Rouse, "Do Returns to Schooling Differ by Race and Ethnicity?," (American Economic Review, vol. 95(2), pages 83-87, May 2005).

4. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology:  The Evolution of U.S. Educational Wage Differentials, 1890 to 2005 (Cambridge, MA: Department of Economics, Harvard University, March 2007).

5. Ellen R. Meara, Seth Richards, and David M. Cutler, “The Gap Gets Bigger: Changes in Mortality and Life Expectancy, by Education, 1981–2000,” (Health Affairs, vol. 27, no. 2, 2008), pp. 350–360.

6. Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh, Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School (CIRCLE Working Paper 59, Medford, MA: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Tufts University, February 2008)

7. The share of high school graduates who enroll in college in the following fall averaged about 50 percent from 1970 to 1979 and rose to about 64 percent from 2000 to 2004.  The share of twenty-five to twenty-nine-year olds who had completed bachelor’s or higher degrees rose more slowly, from 22 percent in 1975 to 29 percent in 2005.  2005 Digest of Education Statistics (Washington: National Center for Education Statistics, tables 8 and 182).

8. UC/ACCORD, California Educational Opportunity Report 2007 (Los Angeles, University of California, 2007), p. 6.

9. http://www.higheredinfo.org/dbrowser/index.php?submeasure=85&year=2005&level =nation&mode=data&state=0   Retrieved December 16, 2007.

10. William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005).

11. John T. Yun and José F. Moreno, (2006).  “College Access, K–12 Concentrated Disadvantage, and the Next 25 Years of Education Research” (Educational Researcher 35(1): 12-19, January/February 2006).   UC/ACCORD, Removing the Roadblocks (Los Angeles: University of California, 2006).

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