College access and readiness indicators highlight room for improvement

More Californians are graduating from high school, but many graduates are underprepared for higher education, according to two recent fact sheets from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) that provide snapshots of college readiness and access across the state.

College readiness

Recent test scores show declines in college readiness, but more students are completing A–G coursework required by the University of California and the California State University systems.

Performance on the state standards tests in 11th grade is an important measure of college readiness, researchers noted, yet just over half (55 percent) of students were deemed college ready in English. Student groups with historically lower college enrollment, including Native American, Black, low-income and Latino youth, as well as students who have ever been categorized as English learners, were deemed ready for college-level math at lower rates than their peers.

Despite poor test scores, about 45 percent of high school graduates completed A–G course work in 2021–22 — up from 41 percent in 2016–17. However, gaps persist in this measure among student demographics as well. While 73 percent of Asian students completed A–G coursework, just 51 percent of white, 36 percent of Latino, 31 percent of Black and 23 percent of Native American students completed A–G courses.

Similar gaps persist in other indicators of college readiness, particularly in Advanced Placement (AP) course taking, where 46 percent of Asian students have taken at least two AP classes and received at least an average score on the related exams, compared to just 7 percent of Pacific Islander, Latino and low-income students; 4 percent of Black and Native American students; and 2 percent of English learners. Similar gaps are prevalent among students who earn the State Seal of Biliteracy.

Researchers provided several recommendations that state and local leaders could take toward addressing these gaps in readiness. “State investments in dual enrollment programs, which give high school students access to college courses, might help better prepare more students for higher education by giving them the opportunity to acquire college credits and gain post-secondary experience,” they stated. Additionally, “gaps in college readiness are evident long before college applications are submitted. Sustained PK–12 funding directed to the highest-need students and federal and state pandemic recovery funding can help address these gaps.”

Reducing high chronic absenteeism rates is also critical to improving college readiness, according to the PPIC.

College access

Recent data show that just over 62 percent of the 435,000 students who graduated from high school in spring 2020 enrolled in college within 12 months, down from 67 percent in 2017–18, and there were significant regional differences. College enrollment rates were highest among graduates from the Bay Area (72 percent), and lowest in the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley (53 percent).

While hundreds of thousands of students apply to UCs and CSUs each year, PPIC researchers found California’s community colleges are a key entry point to higher education, and transfers from California Community Colleges (CCC) make up significant shares of UC and CSU enrollment.

High school graduates are more likely to go to a CCC campus (32 percent) than enroll in CSU (12 percent) or UC (8 percent), but that doesn’t mean they’ll end their educational careers at a community college. “Transfers from community colleges to four-year universities play an outsized role in California, compared to other states,” researchers stated. “In fall 2022, students transferring from community colleges made up 29 percent of new enrollees at UC and 42 percent of new enrollees at CSU.”

Such findings indicate that Associate Degrees for Transfer (ADTs) at CSU and the Transfer Admissions Guarantee (TAG) program at most UC campuses are playing a key role in California’s efforts to increase transfer rates from community colleges and boost the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees, according to the PPIC.