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Testimony: Ensuring That More Students Succeed in College
Hans Johnson March 09, 2017

Hans Johnson, director of the PPIC Higher Education Center and PPIC senior fellow, testified before the Assembly Budget Subcommittee Number 2 on Education Finance in Sacramento today (March 9, 2017). Here are his prepared remarks.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this morning. My name is Hans Johnson and I am the director of the Higher Education Center at the Public Policy Institute of California. PPIC is a nonpartisan policy research organization and does not take positions on legislation. My comments are based on research we have conducted at PPIC on California’s higher education system.

Providing affordable higher education opportunities for all Californians, especially those with limited resources, is essential if we are to realize the benefits of higher education for our state and its residents. Higher education is not only the single best predictor of an individual’s wages and income, but also the strongest determinant of a society’s economic well-being. PPIC has estimated that California’s colleges and universities are not producing enough bachelor’s degrees and will fall 1.1 million degrees short of economic demand by 2030 unless we improve access to and completion in our higher education systems. While economic gains are strongest for workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, recent PPIC research has also shown strong gains for many—but not all—students who complete vocational programs in the state’s community colleges.

One of the central challenges facing higher education today is ensuring that college serves as a ladder for economic and social mobility. This challenge is especially acute in California, where 60% of high school students are identified by the California Department of Education as socioeconomically disadvantaged (meaning they are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch or come from a family in which neither parent has graduated high school). To close the workforce skills gap, California needs to find ways to improve college completion among students from underrepresented groups, including Latino, African American, low-income, and first-generation students.

The good news is that, compared to other states, California’s public colleges and universities enroll a diverse population. Recent research by the Equality of Opportunity Project shows that California’s public universities enroll more low-income students than comparable colleges in the rest of the country. For example, among elite colleges, UCLA ranks first in the nation in the share of students from low- and middle-income backgrounds. Among all large public universities, Cal State Los Angeles ranks 2nd (after City College of New York) in economic mobility, propelling students from lower-income families into middle- and upper-income groups.

The challenge is ensuring that even more students succeed in our higher education systems. The University of California has an excellent track record of graduating low-income and underrepresented students, and California State University has made significant progress in improving graduation rates for all groups. But graduation gaps remain at both institutions. CSU has developed a new and ambitious graduation initiative that would substantially increase graduation rates and completely close graduation gaps by 2025. However, neither institution has been able to fully enroll all qualified applicants. In recent years, thousands of qualified Californians—both freshmen and transfer applicants—have been turned away from UC and CSU due to a lack of funding.

Of the state’s three systems of public education, our community colleges best represent the diversity of young Californians. The state’s community colleges provide higher education opportunities for almost two million students, a majority of whom are from low-income families or other underrepresented groups. However, far too many students who enter community colleges do not succeed: most never transfer to a four-year college or earn a degree or certificate. Hundreds of millions of dollars have recently been invested in efforts like the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) and the Student Success and Support Program (SSSP) to improve student outcomes at California’s community colleges. These and other efforts—such as Guided Pathways, a new initiative to help students establish clear objectives and provide support to achieve their goals—hold a great deal of promise for improving student outcomes.

Expanding access to our public universities and improving outcomes throughout our higher education system will almost certainly take more resources. But using current and new funding to improve student outcomes in the most efficacious manner possible must be a high priority. Better coordination between UC, CSU, the community colleges, and our K–12 system can be a cost-effective way of providing students with a seamless pathway from high school to a higher education degree or certificate. Improving access and programs, including financial aid and student support services, to students with the most need can also help reduce gaps in educational attainment and economic success. The role of higher education officials and state legislators is to ensure that resources are spent on programs that really work for students. PPIC is already working on a number of projects that focus on improving student success, and we look forward to continuing to contribute to such efforts.

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