Members of Kearny High’s class of 2015 await the beginning of their graduation ceremony. / Photo by Dustin Michelson
Members of Kearny High’s class of 2015 await the beginning of their graduation ceremony. / Photo by Dustin Michelson

New data released earlier this month by the Department of Education shows that California’s college attendance rate has not changed significantly in the last four years. It hovers around 64 percent.

But behind that 64 percent, the new data – which provides granular detail on student groups and what type of institution they attend – has an interesting story to tell. It gives us a hint about how many of that 64 percent actually earn a degree. And it tells us a lot about who gets to go to college and what student groups our public school system is failing to serve.

Four-year college, obviously, doesn’t make sense for everyone. But we know students who attend college, on the whole, tend to earn more and even have better health outcomes.

First, let’s take the 30,000-foot view. You can see across the school districts of San Diego County there is a wide disparity in college attendance rates.

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San Diego Unified School District performs extremely well compared with its peers. Only three other school districts – and surprise, they are fairly wealthy ones – outperform San Diego Unified. But when we drill down on the data by ethnicity a disconcerting trend emerges.

It’s hard to see at first. The bar graph just looks like a jumble of colorful lines. But look at the yellow bar. That represents Latino students in San Diego Unified. Latino students represent roughly 57 percent of the San Diego Unified population. And yet the district is failing to help them achieve graduation rates in line with their peers.

You’ll also notice that Asian and white students tend to enroll in college in much higher rates than their peers.

[infogram id=”percentage-of-each-student-that-enrolled-in-college-1hnp27jqyvx82gq” prefix=”FBA”]

The data also shows a disproportionate amount of students who attend community college. On the surface, college attendance rates across the state don’t look so bad. Sixty-five percent for a district here, 75 percent there. Given that you’d expect it to be less than the high school graduation rate, it’s not bad, really.

But what should we make of the community college numbers? It’s very popular. A full 36 percent of graduates enroll in community college. That’s more than those who did not enroll in college at all (34 percent.)

Community colleges have a lot of greatness to offer: trade skills that can lead to a well-paid career and a much more affordable cost. But there is a downside. Community colleges tend to have a significantly lower completion rate than other institutions.

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Research from 2010 showed that 70 percent of California community college students did not complete a two-year associate’s degree or transfer to a four-year institution. Some students who enroll in a community college on a remedial track drop out before they’ve ever had the chance to take a true college-level course.

So even though the attendance figures don’t look bad, they don’t look good either. Many of those who enroll in college will never get close to graduation. They may get knocked off track by financial concerns, a family health problem or a curriculum that didn’t serve their needs.

The new college enrollment data moves California closer to measuring societal inequities, which is critical if politicians want to fix those inequities, as many say they do.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a new longitudinal data system that would follow students from cradle to career. Completing the college end of that data pipeline seems, in theory at least, easy. California’s public universities, including community colleges, already track how many students graduate. Aligning that data with the recently released college attendance figures would give the public a powerful tool for holding politicians accountable over educational outcomes. Then again, the people who have the power to create that tool may not want us to have it.

What I’m Reading

  • Education Secretary Betsy Devos tried to stall on implementing Obama-era regulations on online colleges. After losing a court battle, she was forced to implement the rules on Monday, which means some students in California could lose access to aid money, reports Politico. The Obama rules require online colleges to follow stricter guidelines to be able to receive federal funding.
  • The default rate on student loans is three times as high for those who did not finish college. That means, as my former colleague on NPR’s education desk Elissa Nadworny pointed out, the people hit hardest by debt are the people who don’t have a degree to show for it.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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