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Lesson 9.8

After High School:
What California’s System Provides

Of every 100 ninth graders, the number that graduate college is…

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Education is a journey on a road with many exits. We hope that all students persist through high school, but many do not. We hope that many go on to college, but many do not. We hope those who go to college will finish, but, again, many do not.

California has a long and well-respected history of providing its residents with affordable, lifelong access to postsecondary education. The largest and most visible investment has been a robust public system of colleges and universities. In addition, the state has funded adult education programs.

Rates of high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion have risen steadily. But the funnel remains narrow. Rates of high school graduation, college enrollment, and college completion have risen significantly. (Compare this graphic to 2006). But the funnel remains narrow.

Over time, California's road to and through college has become pocked with potholes, but there are reasons for optimism.

California’s "Master Plan": three college systems

In 1960, California's Master Plan for Higher Education created three systems of public colleges that still exist today. All three systems depend heavily on the state for funding to subsidize the California students who attend.

Big: The University of California (UC) system is the state’s primary academic research institution. It provides undergraduate, graduate, and professional education to over 220,000 students at ten campuses. Admission is guaranteed to the top 12.5% of public high school graduates and all qualified community college transfer students.

Bigger: The California State University (CSU) system has a total of 23 campuses and serves over 400,000 students. The CSU offers undergraduate and graduate education, including a limited number of doctorate degrees jointly with the University of California. Admission to the CSU is available to the top one-third (33.3%) of public high school graduates and all qualified community college transfer students.

Biggest: The California Community Colleges (CCC) is this country’s largest system of higher education. The 112 campuses are organized into 72 districts that together serve 2.6 million students of all ages. About three out of every 10 high school graduates -- that’s over 100,000 students annually -- enroll in a community college and study alongside many older adults. Students who attend community colleges can earn an associate degree, complete a training or certificate program, or prepare to transfer to a four-year university. California's community colleges accept all applicants who are high school graduates, as well as any other adults who can benefit from attendance.

California's three tier college system

Historically, these three systems operated very separately, and transfer applications were a painful process. In 2015 the leadership of the CSU system began to define explicit pathways for transfers. The UC system clarified its transfer processes and requirements in 2018.

More extensive information about these public institutions, the students they serve, and issues they face is available in a series of concise briefs from The Campaign for College Opportunity. Private colleges in California also play a significant role, enrolling perhaps as many as 320,000 students.

Adult Education programs

California’s adult education system also provides a second chance to young adults who have not graduated from high school.

At the time that California passed its Master Plan for higher education, it also provided significant funding to public high schools and community colleges to provide adult education classes. The basic premise of that adult education investment is economic; the state’s adults need access to continuing education of various sorts, not necessarily tied to the completion of a degree or certificate.

Today, though funding for adult education has been greatly reduced, about 1.2 million adult students per year still enroll in adult education courses through the public schools, community colleges, and various community providers. Over a third of these adult students are studying English as a second language, with the support of federal funding.

Funding for adult education declined by over 50% during the Great Recession, spurring California officials to begin rethinking the state’s approach. Spearheaded by Governor Jerry Brown, lawmakers called for a transition to a system of regional partnerships for this purpose. In 2013 the state budget agreement stabilized adult ed funding and set a two-year timeline for the implementation of these partnerships.

One important goal of California’s adult education system is to give a second chance to young adults who have not graduated from high school. For example, the system offers students classes to prepare for the General Educational Development (GED®) test. The GED, a national test, is administered statewide throughout the year at approximately 190 testing centers. In 2008, 58,750 individuals took the test, and 73 percent passed.

Postsecondary success eludes too many students

The leaky bucket that carries students from kindergarten to college admission continues to leak after students reach college. As usual, it is tragically easy to predict which students will earn a degree and which will not. In a speech to Full Circle Fund members, Ted Mitchell, then president of the New Schools Venture Fund, made the point powerfully: “Imagine a hundred African-American boys in kindergarten. Based on current college-going and college-completion rates, would you care to guess how many of them will graduate from college? The answer is two.”

In a 2008 “National Report Card on Higher Education” California compared poorly to the U.S. as a whole in the proportion of students enrolled in college who completed a degree or certificate program.

  • Sixty-two percent of college students completed a bachelor’s degree within six years.
  • However, only 46% of black students and 53% of Hispanic students graduated within six years, compared with 66% of white students.

When colleges fail to help their students complete a formal program of study in a reasonable amount of time, they don’t just miss an opportunity to change lives. They also increase the cost of public higher education and reduce the benefits the state gets from that investment.

There are many explanations for this relatively low college success rate and state officials are trying to address them. As the next lesson explains, one critical component for students is their ability to pay for their college education.

Next Steps

The California State PTA provides resources to help plan for college, including info on application and testing assistance, school research, and financial aid.


California's college system has contributed to the state's enduring success. Which is the biggest piece of this system, in terms of number of students served?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jenny Greene August 13, 2020 at 3:54 pm
The statistic that only 12 of the 100 9th graders in the graphic will earn a 4 year degree is shocking. My husband and I both have advanced degrees and I assume that most of the people we know in our community have at least a 4-year degree. That either shows me what kind of bubble I live in or a false understanding of our peers, or both.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh December 7, 2019 at 4:02 pm
With all the recent talk, and I mean within the past five years at least, about college no longer being necessary to many students, I am wondering how many students feel that college is simply not necessary in terms of the expenditure versus the potential yield.
user avatar
vandrm February 6, 2020 at 4:17 pm
I believe that the more correct way of looking at higher education in the last five years in regards to a student's career choice would be that a 4 year degree is not necessarily as important as it used to be considered for student success. Many Community Colleges offer numerous 2 year certificates for students to prepare them for well paying jobs in construction trades, graphic printing, and renewable energy maintenance just to name a few off the cuff.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale March 28, 2019 at 10:35 am
I was saddened to see how late in the game amelioration of the transfer process from community colleges to the UC and CSU systems was addressed. If it weren't for the community colleges and transfers, I wonder if the percentage of 9th graders graduating would be even lower than it is.
user avatar
Jeff Camp August 9, 2018 at 2:47 pm
The 2018-19 budget includes $46 million for California College Promise programs, which fund community colleges to work with high schools in ways that increase college-going and college completion. More here.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 8, 2018 at 11:42 am
Looking for ideas on what communities can do to support the success in more students attending and completing college?
West Ed has published profiles of the College Promise in California that highlight important strategies.

Find out more
user avatar
g4joer6 April 22, 2015 at 11:41 pm
First time I've heard the stats at the beginning of this lesson. Very interesting to learn that 16 out of 100 graduate from college.
user avatar
Caryn-C September 18, 2017 at 10:44 am
Agreed. And 2 out of 100 African American boys? That's a tragic and terrifying statistic.
user avatar
Brenda Etterbeek June 15, 2019 at 2:12 pm
Agree. These stats are scary.
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