By Ed Coghlan
The Los Angeles economy has a problem.
Employers need more workers with bachelor's degrees—and the pipeline isn't nearly full enough. "It is imperative we do better," said UNITE-LA President & CEO David Rattray. "Not only do more college graduates improve individual job prospects, they also can bridge the equity gap that persists in L.A. County, where thousands of families have never had a family member even attend college much less graduate."
This is exactly the type of problem that the L.A. Compact was formed to address. The L.A. Compact, which UNITE-LA convenes, brings together leaders from early childhood, K12, higher education, government, and the labor and business sectors in the region to close the education and workforce gaps caused by system inequities and racism.
For families who have not finished college before, generally the community colleges are where people start. So how do we make sure that people succeed in community college and move on to four-year institutions?
That is a question that members of the L.A. Compact's Student Success Workgroup set out to answer. Members of the workgroup include higher education administrators focused on promoting college student success and who recognize that no single institution alone can solve the complex education challenges facing our region.
As the convener of the workgroup, UNITE-LA commissioned WestEd to conduct a research study that has educators from elementary through the California State college system talking about how we can do better to increase student college completion.
In particular, the study looked at Associate Degrees for Transfer (ADTs) from California Community Colleges which are two-year associate degrees that are fully transferable to CSU schools.
What they found out was interesting:
- ADTs are doing a good job: students with ADTs transfer a year faster than others. However, there's a lack of them transferring into majors that lead to higher paying jobs in health and STEM.
- There's considerable evidence of tracking—students choosing majors are highly correlated to their gender and ethnicity.
- Many community college students are earning nonspecific associate degrees—which can leave four-year institutions at a disadvantage about what majors to provide that can help prepare students for life and work
- Students in non-specific majors take longer to transfer. The longer they are in school the less likely they are to finish and their lifetime earnings will be lower.
So, what do we do with these findings?
Plainly, ADT Pathways need to be strengthened in fields like STEM and health—with an eye toward attracting more Latinx and African American students. For CSU, it means creating more opportunities for these students to major in fields that align with the needs of the local workforce. That means figuring out how to expand the size of programs if they are full.
The fix to these issues isn't found just at CSU or the community colleges or even in high school.
"We have to be more intentional about higher education pipelines starting in middle school," said Dr. Terri Gomez, Associate Provost for Student Success, Equity and Innovation at Cal Poly Pomona. "We need to demystify higher education for first generation students."
Dr. James Limbaugh has been the President of West Los Angeles Community College since 2016 and he praised the ADTs as an appropriate way to help students succeed. He also said he was glad that UNITE-LA is leading on the issue of addressing changes to the education system in Los Angeles.
"It takes an entity like UNITE-LA to orchestrate this conversation," he said. "All of us are fighting our own day-to-day battles in our own schools and a third party like them can help us identify and make changes that can benefit students in the region."
But what we've learned is change doesn't start in the community colleges, it starts way before that. The L.A. Compact Student Success Group is working on ideas that can identify and inspire students in high school and even middle school in the importance the role college can play in changing their lives.
There are 88 school districts in Los Angeles County—many that serve large populations of students who would be the first to go to college. One of those is Lynwood Unified in southeast Los Angeles County that has launched "College Promise" to help families create college savings accounts for new kindergarten students.
"We have learned that aside from awareness you need to have systems that emphasize and support post-secondary options as soon as possible. We believe that earlier intervention by all of us, from higher education to local school districts, can help address the need our area has for more college graduates," said Dr. Gudiel R. Crosthwaite, Lynwood School Superintendent.
So, what happens now?
A group of educators from CSU schools, L.A. community colleges and K-12 leaders are going to work on creating some real-world action plans that can address the issues that keep students from going to college or succeeding in college, that hinder African American and Latinx students from getting into academic majors in STEM and healthcare and address the other major findings from the study.
The goal is to have the ideas formed into action plans by the end of the year and be presented to campus leadership for consideration and possible implementation in 2022.
Kathy Booth is Project Director for Educational Data and Policy at WestEd who conducted the study.
"It literally takes the whole community to make students' dreams come true. This study shows that there are ways for community colleges to partner with K-12, CSU and employers to accelerate first-generation college-goers toward a bachelor’s degree," she said. "We can and should grow successful strategies and identify where new approaches are needed so that all students can attain their dreams of sustaining themselves, their families and their communities."
For UNITE-LA's President & CEO Rattray this is a moment where real change can happen which will allow more youth to learn and thrive.
"We know that education and career success occur when more individuals obtain degrees. These findings and resulting actions can not only help our economy continue to grow, but also can help more students attend and finish college and help close the equity gap in our communities."