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Nearly half high school graduates don’t qualify to apply to a California university

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Before a graduating high school senior can even consider going to a four-year school in either the California State or University of California systems, he or she must take some specific classes.

Dubbed the “A-G requirements,” the courses represent more than what’s needed for a high school diploma but they’re a bare minimum for both of California’s public university systems. Think of them as keys to a golden door that students must pass through before they can be accepted or rejected by California’s best public universities.

Currently, the A-G list includes at least two years of history, four years of English, three years of math, two years of science, two years of a world language, a year of performing or visual arts, and one year of a college-prep (Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or a dual-credit) course. What’s more, a grade of “C” or higher is required for any of those classes to count.

But even in an era when federal data shows workers with a college degree earn at least $1 million more than a non-college degree worker over a typical lifetime, barely half the kids graduating from California high schools are qualified to apply to a four-year state school.

In the last academic year, 51.7% of high school seniors statewide graduated with a transcript that would allow them to apply to a Cal State or UC school, according to data released in January by the California Department of Education. In Orange County the qualification rate was slightly higher, 57%.

The numbers haven’t changed much in recent years. In the 2016-’17 academic year, 49.5% of graduates statewide left high school with transcripts that might get them into a Cal State or UC school.

In one sense, those numbers might be appropriate.

As part of the Donahoe Higher Education Act of 1960 — which was aimed at making sure good college degrees in California would be priced low enough for everyone to get one — the state determined that the UC system would serve the top 12.5% of all high school graduates and the Cal State system would be available for the top 33%. By those measures, state high schools seem to be meeting the bar.

Also, the A-G list (and college prep work in general) isn’t always a final say. Both the UC and Cal State systems carve out exceptions, offering admission to some students (which the UC system outlines as students who may have been homeschooled or studied under extreme circumstances) who do not meet all of the course requirements.

There’s also the prospect of getting into a four-year school after attending two years of community college, though that’s not always a smooth path to getting a bachelors degree. A 2021 study found that only 2.5% of community college students in California transferred to a Cal State or UC school after two years, and about a quarter (23%) made the jump after four years.

And even then — if a student passes all the courses required to apply to the respective university systems — there is a strong chance of rejection, though that varies depending on where you’re applying.

During the 2022-23 cycle, the overall acceptance rate for the 10 UC schools was 40.7%, ranging from a low of 8.8% at UCLA to a high of 88.3% at UC Merced. The 23 Cal State schools had a higher overall acceptance rate, 80.2%, ranging from one in three (33%) getting in at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to nearly every applicant (97%) getting in at Cal State Fresno.

There’s yet another factor at play: How many high school students actually want to go to college?

A Gallup poll from 2021 found that only about 41% of Americans age 18 to 29 say a college degree is “very important,” down from 74% who said that six years earlier. Likewise, the percentage of jobs that require a college degree was 44% in 2021, down from 51% in 2017. Meanwhile, companies as varied as Apple, Hilton Hotels and Tesla have started to interview applicants whether they have a four-year degree or not.

Still, a solid majority of high school seniors (61% in the last academic year) plan to get a four-year degree. And federal data shows that not only do college grads still earn more than their non-degreed peers, they’re also less likely to be laid off in recessions and less vulnerable to changes in technology.

All of which is why many educators believe the wide variance in availability and popularity of A-G college prep courses — sometimes even at schools within the same district — is unfair.

“The disparity in A-G course offerings is a reminder of the enduring educational inequities that continue to affect students’ futures,” said Nancy Watkins, director of the educational doctorate program at Cal State Fullerton.

“This gap not only limits the ability of students from underprivileged backgrounds to apply to universities, particularly within the UC system, but also perpetuates a cycle of educational and economic disparity.”

Winners and losers

Data shows that money is a driving factor in determining whether a student earns a college degree. The numbers also show that kids in wealthier neighborhoods have better access to the A-G courses and the golden door, while kids in lower-income neighborhoods often have far less access.

Surprisingly, neither world — higher income students or lower income students — is currently producing a huge number of college grads.

Last year, the Public Policy Institute of California projected that only about 40% of wealthy and middle-income ninth graders would eventually go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. That’s about twice the rate (21%) projected for lower-income students.

“Although the state has made enormous progress, more work is needed to improve student success at key transition points, including high school graduation, college enrollment, transfer, and college completion,” wrote the study’s four authors, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, Cesar Alesi Perez, Vicki Hsieh and Hans Johnson.

“If current enrollment and completion rates continue, most California 9th graders will not earn a bachelor’s degree.”

But the path to that starts with the A-G course availability and popularity. In Orange County, that can vary wildly from school to school.

Consider: At Corona del Mar High, which is fed by students from higher-income neighborhoods in Newport Beach and Newport Coast, 80% of graduates last June had transcripts that would let them apply to a UC or Cal State school, one of the highest rates in Orange County. At Estancia High, a school in the same district (Newport Mesa Unified) that is fed by many lower-income neighborhoods in central Costa Mesa, the college prep rate was among the lowest in the county, just 35.8%.

“We really had to push hard to make sure he got the classes and the grades. Most of his friends weren’t into it,” said Enola Hernandez, a Costa Mesa resident who said her son, now 21, is studying business at Cal State Sacramento after graduating from Estancia High three years ago.

“I think the teachers all tried hard (at Estancia) to get the kids who were interested in college to apply, but it didn’t feel like the norm for everybody,” she added. “I bet it did at other schools.”

A spokesperson for Newport Mesa Unified, Annette Franco, said the district’s A-G offerings represent “just one of the many options available to our students as they navigate their educational journey. We are proud of our district’s commitment to offering a diverse array of educational opportunities, including our comprehensive A-G courses.”

But money isn’t always an overwhelming hurdle, and many schools and districts in Orange County appear to be punching above their weight in terms of prepping high schoolers for college.

At the Alternative Middle College High School, part of Santa Ana Unified School District, 98.9% of graduating seniors last June had transcripts to apply to Cal State or UC schools. That was true even though 72% of the students there are eligible for free or reduced lunches, a measure commonly used by educators to track income.

How did they do it? Students are enrolled at Santa Ana College as well as high school. They see college is attainable.

Another success story is in Garden Grove Unified. The district is on the lower-end of the county, income wise, with a high percentage of students qualifying for free/reduced lunch. But at La Quinta High — where more than eight in ten students qualify as lower-income — 73% of graduates left with college prep transcripts.

Ditto for Anaheim High School in the Anaheim Union High School District. Most of its graduating class qualified for free/reduced lunch, yet 68% of those students met the college prep requirements.

How important, really?

Many school officials in Orange County said A-G courses are not the be-all and end-all of education.

Franco, at Newport Mesa Unified, said her district provides a “broad spectrum of programs” for a student population that has a broad spectrum of goals and needs.

“Whether students choose to pursue career and technical education, participate in dual enrollment programs or engage in community service initiatives, our goal is to equip them with the skills, knowledge and experiences needed to thrive in an ever-evolving world,” she said.

Capistrano Unified feels much the same way. “A-G completion is not the only criteria for admission like it used to be,” said spokesperson Ryan Burris, who noted that a great many students who finish the gateway courses still get rejected when they apply to the state’s two university systems.

“College and career readiness is also taking on a higher profile. So school districts like ours are also making larger investments in these areas to support students on their next steps after graduation,” Burris said.

“We are partnering with Saddleback College with programs already in place – and looking to expand opportunities for our students. Some of the opportunities are how students could get dual credit while in high school.”

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Do both well

Watkins, the education expert at CSU Fullerton, agrees that both are important. But preparing all students for college, and the doors a degree can open, is a matter of basic fairness.

She offers up a bulleted list of how to do that.

• At individual school sites, administrators can make these courses budget priorities despite fiscal constraints. That might involve creative scheduling, online courses or sharing resources among different schools.

• Striking partnerships with local colleges and universities can be key. A review by Southern California News Group found that low-income schools with “dual enrollment” — meaning high school students who can also take community college classes — fared better at meeting those higher education requirements than did others.

• Partnerships with organizations that offer tutoring, mentorship and summer bridge programs can help, as would better family outreach and access to school counselors so students can plan early for college applications.

• Up at the district level, officials could conduct regular audits to track disparities in the offerings across schools — and send resources to the schools that need it most.

• They could also streamline the process for developing and approving new A-G courses, especially for courses offered online or through dual enrollment with community colleges.

• And up at the state level, there should be a collaboration between districts, colleges and universities, businesses and community organizations to expand opportunities for student internships and apprenticeships.

“Ultimately, reversing this trend is about ensuring that all students have the opportunity to attend college and affirming the value of diverse educational pathways,” Watkins said. “We must improve access and reimagine how we prepare students for life beyond high school.”

This means that school districts and community members need to make clear to kids that a four-year college isn’t the only pathway.

“We just want people to be successful in their lives,” Watkins said. “Districts can help prepare all students for success in our changing world, regardless of their socioeconomic background.”


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