Many L.A. students get to college; only a few finish

More L.A. Unified students, like Metropolitan High School's Yesenia Ceballos, 18, left, graduated this year, but a persisting challenge is to get them to graduate from college.
More L.A. Unified students, like Metropolitan High School’s Yesenia Ceballos, 18, left, graduated this year, but a persisting challenge is to get them to graduate from college.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A new study has put an exclamation point on a problem that Los Angeles Unified School District officials already acknowledge: too few of their graduates — about one in four — are earning college degrees.

District officials had early access to the findings of researchers from UCLA and Claremont Graduate University. In fact, they were partners in the effort. The collaboration between researchers and the district is a subtle but important component of what’s newsworthy here.

Even while the research was being done, the district was using the preliminary results in its successful application for a $17 million state grant. To develop a plan for how to attack the problem, district officials also looked at research in Chicago and Houston on “college persistence” — the ability to stay in college and earn a degree.


“This research has absolutely informed our practice,” said L.A. Unified Chief Academic Officer Frances Gipson. “It is guiding our current work.”

The district’s strategy includes providing counseling support, based in L.A. Unified, even after students enter college.

L.A. Unified — like many an urban school systems — has far to go.

About 70% of Los Angeles high school graduates enroll in two- or four-year colleges, but only 25% graduate within six years.

There’s a time lag and data is released slowly, so the most recent six-year tracking is for seniors who graduated in 2008. But numbers for later years appear to be following the same trend line.

There is, however, one change for the better: More students are graduating from high school. Therefore more are going on to college and earning college degrees, even if the percentage of college grads remains frustratingly low.

In this context, it’s hard to assess recent district efforts that could be seen as pushing in different directions. On one hand, the district is touting higher standards: a high school graduation requirement that all students pass the courses necessary for applying to a four-year state college. On the other hand, the district requires a grade of D only in these classes and the colleges require a C or better to apply. The district also offers an array of “credit recovery” options to let students raise failing grades — a plan that has have been criticized for giving such credit too easily.

Although the district has achieved record graduation rates, skeptics have questioned whether all those graduates are fully prepared for higher education.

A companion study suggests one reason that high school graduates are not ready to stick it out in college: They can’t get the expert advice and support they need. More than 75% of high school counselors say they have the knowledge to help students complete college and financial aid applications, but only 42% said they have enough time to provide students with the needed assistance.

“This report provides a first look at L.A. Unified graduates’ pathways to and through college,” UCLA co-author Thomas Jacobson said. “It will be important to continue to track these college-going outcomes in upcoming years to understand students’ successes and challenges.”

The studies were funded by a grant from the San Francisco-based College Futures Foundation to UCLA, and the nonprofit Los Angeles Education Research Institute is partnering with L.A. Unified.



6 p.m. Sept. 1: This article was updated throughout with additional details.

This story was originally published Aug. 30 at 5:30 a.m.