California Forum

Close California’s income gap with a clearer path from kindergarten to college degree

Ninth-graders from Kennedy High School visit Sacramento City College in 2012 as part of a program to expose high school students to higher education.
Ninth-graders from Kennedy High School visit Sacramento City College in 2012 as part of a program to expose high school students to higher education. rpench@sacbee.com

California’s booming economy is the fifth-largest in the world – but residents experience some of the highest and fastest-growing income inequality in the nation, and our poverty rate tops all other states when cost of living is factored in.

It’s no surprise that generating economic opportunity and upward mobility are top concerns right now for California leaders and families across the state. If we want to close these wide and increasing gaps, we must clear the path for students to succeed.

Powerful possibilities will open up when K-12 and our colleges and universities work together, rather than in silos, and when policies are implemented with the full K-degree pipeline in mind.

Education is a critical factor in significantly improving socioeconomic status. With a bachelor’s degree, one can expect to earn nearly $1 million more over a lifetime than someone with only a high school diploma – and that wage gap is widening. Over 95 percent of jobs created during the recovery have gone to college-educated workers, while those with a high school diploma or less are being left behind.

Right now in California, high school students are graduating in large numbers, college-ambitious and college-ready – due in large part to strides in K-12 in the past decade. Yet not all hardworking young people with dreams are getting a fair shot at a better life.

The vast majority of our state’s K–12 students are of color and low-income, yet these students make up a minority of graduates from our public universities. Moreover, at every step, they face wide and ever widening gaps in opportunity and outcomes due to race, economic status, and ZIP code.

Policies and practices that clear pathways and accelerate progress to degree need to be adopted and amplified.

The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) is an example of a sweeping reform with great potential that must be implemented wisely if we are to realize the promise of its educational equity provisions. LCFF fundamentally changed resource allocation in our K-12 system with greater flexibility for districts and support for students facing barriers.

Now, greater clarity around decision-making, more meaningful community engagement, helpful policy and research recommendations, and more robust data use and reporting are needed.

Effective this fall, the California State University system is dropping traditional remedial education. This practice affects more than a third of freshmen enrolled in the largest public university system in the country, yet generally doesn’t benefit students as it slows or halts their progress.

Meanwhile, the California Community Colleges are enacting remediation reforms at certain campuses. These efforts are a result of tracking student outcomes data and working collaboratively across segments of our educational pipeline.

Currently, a fourth-year high school math requirement for applicants is in the works for implementation by the CSU – an illustration of the kind of policy change made in one segment of the educational pipeline that will impact students in another, particularly low-income students underrepresented in universities. Such a change requires communication and planning between K-12 and higher education to protect equity of opportunity.

Powerful possibilities will open up when K-12 and our colleges and universities work together, rather than in silos, and when policies are implemented with the full K-degree pipeline in mind.

Unfortunately, that is not how those in public education are currently organized, incentivized, supported, or held accountable.

Our state and educational leaders must reimagine a system fully aligned around student success, and must incentivize and require collaboration between the segments,, from K-12 through community colleges to CSUs and the UC.

Let’s take advantage of this moment when we are not in the depths of a recession to plan and build one unified education system – seamless, sustainable, and student-centered.

It is imperative, for our society and our state, that the educational pathways to opportunity are clear and available to those who need them most.

Monica Lozano is president and CEO of College Futures Foundation, former editor and publisher of La Opinión, former chair of the California State Board of Education and UC Board of Regents and a participant in The Sacramento Bee/McClatchy Influencers series. Reach her at mlozano@collegefutures.org and find the series (with more on education Monday) at sacbee.com/influencers.

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