College Going in LAUSD:
An Analysis of College Enrollment, Persistence, and Completion Patterns
College attendance and completion have become increasingly critical pathways to social and economic well-being. When students continue their education beyond high school, they are more likely to be financially secure as adults, to be healthier, and to have children who do better in school.i In recognition of the growing importance of a college education, national curricular conversations at the K-12 level currently emphasize college and career readiness more so than in the past,ii as do many public school systems throughout the country, including the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). LAUSD’s policy focus in recent years has moved beyond the expectation that students graduate from high school to the expectation that they will be prepared for college and careers.iii
Although school districts in California have long reported information on their students’ academic performance and high school graduation rates, few school districts routinely report information about whether their students have enrolled in college, the colleges they have attended, and whether they attained a college degree, largely because such data are not routinely collected through most district and state data systems. The National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), an organization that provides college enrollment and degree verification services to most postsecondary institutions in the U.S., does collect such data, which provides the opportunity to describe college enrollment patterns for a large percentage of high school graduates. For this report, we have linked the NSC data about college outcomes with LAUSD data on students’ ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and high school performance, to provide a first look at college enrollment, persistence, and completion for LAUSD graduates.
Although this descriptive report is just a first step in understanding LAUSD graduates’ transitions to college, the results point to four critical lessons for improving LAUSD students’ college outcomes in years to come:
1. Improving LAUSD students’ academic achievement is essential for ensuring that more students successfully start and complete college, and must begin earlier than high school.
Less than a third of 2014 graduates had A or B averages, and only a quarter of graduates who took the SAT or ACT scored above the national average. In Los Angeles, as in other school districts and nationally, academic performance is the most important predictor of college enrollment and completion.iv In LAUSD, graduates with at least a B average were five times more likely to complete a four-year degree than graduates with lower grades. Because students’ academic performance in high school depends very heavily on the academic skills students have acquired earlier in their lives, improving students’ academic performance is not a task limited to high schools and their students.v The responsibility for improving LAUSD students’ academic skills begins early in children’s lives and continues throughout their academic career, and should involve the entire school community as well as the families and other adults who work with students to ensure that they are prepared for their highest educational aspirations.
2. Striving to ensure that all LAUSD students graduate from high school having completed their college preparatory, A-G course requirements with at least a C is critical for ensuring students’ college success.
Recent LAUSD graduates who completed the A-G course sequence with only a D were five times less likely to enroll in a four-year college than their peers who completed A-G with at least a C. This strong association between A-G completion with at least a C and four-year college enrollment is unsurprising because public, in-state, four-year colleges require at least a C in A-G courses as part of their admissions eligibility criteria. Although completing A-G with at least a D is LAUSD’s current high school graduation requirement, LAUSD needs to ensure that entering ninth grade students and their families understand that students must earn at least Cs, not Ds, to have a chance of admission to public universities in California. LAUSD’s high school administrators and teachers must also continue or intensify their efforts to ensure that instruction in students’ A-G classes engages students and helps them master the material so that they earn strong grades the first time they take each course. High schools, and their non-profit partners, need the resources to be able to provide additional, more personalized academic help to students who are struggling in their A-G courses. And LAUSD should continue its efforts to provide opportunities for students who have failed A-G courses, or earned Ds in them, to recover A-G credits—ideally, through high quality credit recovery alternatives that have been thoroughly evaluated. In principle, however, an increased emphasis on strong instruction the first time students take A-G courses, and adequate supports when students show signs of struggle, would eventually decrease the need for the substantial efforts currently underway in the district to provide credit recovery options. Certainly, the Los Angeles philanthropic community could play an important role in investing resources in research-based interventions to support schools’ or the district’s efforts to ensure that students master the material in their A-G classes and thus are four-year-college eligible.vi
3. Supporting students’ and families’ understanding of the college application and financial aid process is much needed to ensure that academically-qualified students enroll in college.
More than one in six LAUSD graduates who were academically-eligible to attend a public four-year college did not enroll in any college in the year following high school graduation. Another one in six of those eligible for four-year college enrolled in a two-year rather than a four-year college. These students completed their A-G course requirements and earned the combination of grades and SAT scores that made them eligible for a California State University, yet they did not enroll in a four-year college. While not all of these students would have been better off enrolling in a four-year college, undoubtedly some did not apply to any four-year colleges or for the financial aid and scholarships for which they were eligible. Working to improve the system of college and financial aid information and support—so that academically-qualified students have many good college options from which to choose—should be a high priority for the Los Angeles community. A companion LAERI report offers a first look at these supports in LAUSD and suggests improvements.vii To better prioritize resources, future research should build on that report to understand which students most need support during the application and financial aid process and which steps in the process pose the biggest challenges for them.
4. Increasing LAUSD graduates’ college persistence and completion rates is an important task for local colleges and universities that have low transfer and graduation rates.
Large numbers of LAUSD graduates—more than two-thirds from the class of 2014—went to college in the year following high school graduation (about 60% of college-goers enrolled in a two-year college and the remaining 40% enrolled in a four-year college). Based on patterns from the classes of 2013 and 2008, about 85% of college-goers will re-enroll in college for a second year, but only a little over a third will earn a degree of some type within six years, and about a quarter will earn a bachelor’s degree (B.A.). These low B.A. completion rates have many causes, including students’ K-12 academic preparation; however, two- and four-year colleges can play important roles in improving students’ transfer and completion rates. Given the importance of college completion, partnerships among philanthropists, community and civic organizations, and local postsecondary institutions to develop, implement, and rigorously evaluate college interventions could be a productive strategy for enhancing students’ persistence and completion.viii In addition, knowing more about students’ transfer pathways from two-year to four-year colleges, and how those pathways influence students’ experiences and achievements in college, will be important foundational information for advising students and developing programs to support students’ college success.
This report provides a baseline from which to measure LAUSD graduates’ progress to and through college in upcoming years. It also reveals challenges that will require a systemic set of efforts on the part of schools, district leaders, colleges and universities, philanthropists, community-based and civic organizations, as well as students and their families. The results, taken within the broader literature on college going, also suggest that if our community believes that all students should be prepared for college enrollment and success, even if they choose not to attend college after high school, then directing resources and interventions toward academic preparation early in students’ lives should be a high priority. Setting this high bar is likely to pay off in improved high school graduation rates and college enrollment and completion rates, and—if national trends hold for L.A. students—in students’ social and economic well-being as adults.
i Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2013; Hout, 2012; Oreopoulos & Petronijevic, 2013.
ii For example, college and career readiness anchor standards in the Common Core (Conley, 2014).
iii Los Angeles Unified School District, 2015.
iv See, for example, Bowen, Kurzweil, & Tobin, 2005 and Roderick, Nagaoka, & Allensworth, 2006.
v See, for example, Allensworth, Gwynne, Moore, & De la Torre, 2014; Lesnick, Goerge, Smithgall, & Gwynne, 2010; Phillips, 2011.
vi For example, this randomized evaluation of a tutoring intervention in Chicago Public Schools provides promising evidence that within-the-school-day tutoring can yield important improvements in high school students’ math performance (Cook et al., 2015).
vii See Phillips, Yamashiro, & Miller, 2017.
viii For an example of a successful community college intervention, see Scrivener, Weiss, Ratledge, Rudd, Sommo, & Fresques, 2015.