The California State University (CSU), the largest four-year public university system in the nation, has historically struggled with low graduation rates (Jackson & Cook, 2016) mainly due to their incoming students’ academic under-preparation (Hall, 2018). Similarly, the California Community Colleges (CCC), the largest system of higher education in the United States, has faced numerous challenges increasing their completion (associate degree/certificate and/or transfer) rates chiefly as a result of their inherent mandate to provide remedial instruction to all students who need it (Beach, 2012). While both systems have cycled through different approaches to increase their completion rates, challenges related to students arriving unprepared for college have continually beleaguered the institutions.
Two major roadblocks students face on their path toward college graduation are math underpreparation and the lack of a post-secondary plan. Students who matriculate into college without being fully prepared in mathematics face a higher probability of dropping out in their first year (Scott-Clayton & Rodriguez, 2015). Similarly, arriving on a college campus without a cogent strategy hinders students’ progress toward graduation. This is particularly acute for underrepresented (low-income, minority, and first-generation) college students who tend to face multiple barriers simultaneously (Page & Scott-Clayton, 2016). Dropping out of college exacerbates the cycle of trans-generational poverty by leaving students with educational loan debts and no degree to show for it. It also places California in the challenging position of being unable to address its workforce development needs. Specifically, if current trends continue, by 2030 the state will face a workforce skills gap of close to 1.1 million college educated workers necessary to meet our economic demands (Johnson, Mejia, & Bohn, 2015). Inadequate Mathematics Preparation While math under-preparation greatly impacts graduation rates across the CSU system, the problem is particularly pronounced at their broad access campuses (Jackson & Kurlaender, 2014).
Two CSUs with the highest math remediation and lowest graduation rates are California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA). While the rate of degree completion for all majors is low, math under-preparation compounds the issue for students attempting STEM majors (see Table 1). CSUDH and CSULA are both designated as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI), meaning that their enrollment of undergraduate full-time equivalent students is at least one-fourth Hispanic and half or more of these Hispanic students have incomes at or 150% of the poverty line (Li & Carroll, 2007). As such, these two CSUs serve mostly under-represented students (URS) from urban communities in Greater Los Angeles.
CSU Fall 2017 Math Readiness and 2011 Cohort Cumulative Graduation Rates for 4, 5, and 6 Years for All Majors and STEM.
It’s important to note that the CSU system last published math remediation data for the Fall 2017 freshmen cohort.
Similarly, statewide at CCCs, 80% of students arrive underprepared for college-level mathematics with only 40% of them completing their associate degree/certificate and/or transferring to a four-year university within six years. In contrast, of the 20% who arrive college math ready, 72% complete their degree/certificate or transfer within six years. When the data are disaggregated for low-income and minority students, 92% arrive unprepared with 33% of them completing/transferring within six years (California Community Colleges, 2018; Rodriguez, Cuellar-Mejia, & Johnson, 2018).
Students in rural communities depend particularly heavily on CCCs due to low eligibility rates for four-year universities. For example, in the San Joaquin Valley A-G completion rates1 are 26% — compared to 55% for LAUSD and 45% for the State average (Boris, 2018) and only 23% of their students take the SAT (Boris, 2018) – compared to 49% nationwide and 60% statewide (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). As a result, most students who decide to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the Central Valley first begin at a CCC and then transfer to a 4-year institution.
The college math readiness issue can be tracked back into California’s public high schools using data from the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP)2. The CSU uses students’ 11th grade scores as an early indicator of college math readiness. The results are presented as scaled scores or in four performance level with the upper levels indicators of college math readiness. Students who score a four on their CAASPP may enroll directly in a college level math course without the need for placement testing or additional support courses3. The last four years of statewide CAASPP scores, presented in Table 2, illustrates the low rates of college math readiness, specifically for URS.
Table 2. Historical CAASPP College Math Readiness (Level 4) Rates
In 2010, the state implemented the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) across K-12 in an effort to better prepare students for college. Researchers at the Public Policy Institute (PPIC), “found no overall effect on graduation rates, the share of students taking or passing Advanced Placement courses, the share of students taking the SAT exams, or the share completing the “a–g” courses required by California’s four-year public universities.” (Gao & Lafortune, 2019, p. 3).
Lack of a College Plan
High school counselors are the most critical source of college knowledge for students (Belasco, 2013), yet three systemic barriers hinder their ability to help students with the transition into college: (1) school finances, (2) counselor training programs, and (3) competing demands for counselors’ time (Avery, Howell, & Page, 2014). First, high schools have historically not funded counselor positions at adequate levels. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1 to 250. California’s average is triple that with one counselor for every 760 students – with high poverty schools having ratios even higher than that (Clinedinst & Koranteng, 2017). Paradoxically, students with the highest needs meet with their counselors the least amount of time (Avery et al., 2014).
Second, most pre-service counselor training programs in this nation do not prepare their candidates with the knowledge and skills to develop, implement, and evaluate college-readiness programs. The majority of university-based school counselor preparation programs focus on teaching prospective school counselors how to provide individual therapy and intervention to students – without explicitly focusing on the key aspects of college counseling. In fact, most pre-service school counselors are typically trained in conjunction with prospective marriage/family and mental health counselors. Even when universities require field practicum experiences, many school counseling candidates satisfy these requirements through individual counseling sessions which often are not required to be in a school setting (Hines & Lemons, 2011).
Third, school counselors nationally only spend an average of 21% of their time engaging in postsecondary admission counseling (Clinedinst & Koranteng, 2017). Bruce & Bridgeland (2012) capture their typical workday: In addition to supporting students’ social-emotional and academic development, counselors provide administrative support, fill in for teachers, coordinate tests, and act as a liaison between schools and communities, among many other responsibilities. Although their efforts do not go unnoticed by administrators, many counselors and administrators alike believe that changes should be made to counselors’ job responsibilities to attain the goal of an education system in which all students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college and career (Bruce & Bridgeland, 2012, p. 12).
The problem is augmented by the lack of professional development for high school counselors on how to effectively help students apply to, enroll in, and transition into college (Bruce & Bridgeland, 2012). In this context, it is clear why most students do not graduate from high school with a coherent strategy to navigate their transition to college graduation. High school seniors are overwhelmed by the numerous and complex choices they must make in a short amount of time (Ross, White, Wright, & Knapp, 2013). This problem is particularly amplified for underrepresented students as Denley (2014) explains: First generation, low income and minority students often do not have the advice system that surrounds students whose parents or other relatives have been to college. Information is certainly available to these students, but without knowledge of the structure and nomenclature of higher education they are unable to even frame the questions that would enable them to become informed. (Denley, 2014, p. 62).
As a result, one-third of first-generation college students matriculate into college without choosing a major compared to 13% of students from households with familial college knowledge (Chen & Carroll, 2005). Those students who do choose a major, most often do it with limited information on how to successfully complete that program (M. Kirst & Venezia, 2004) or realize too late that their expectations for their area of study are incongruent with the reality of the career options in that field (Smith & Wertlieb, 2005).