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

A study released Wednesday put an exclamation point on something that officials already have acknowledged: too few of their graduates — about one in four — are earning a college degree.

The latest data points from two studies, by and Claremont Graduate University researchers, were no surprise to L.A. Unified. District officials had early access to the research — in fact, they were partners to the effort, long before this week’s formal release.

The collaboration between researchers and the district is a subtle but important component of what’s newsworthy around this announcement of findings. Even while the study was underway, the district used the preliminary results — and their plan for making things better — to apply for a $17 million state grant that is coming this way. To develop the plan, officials also looked at research from Chicago and Houston into “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 strategy includes providing counseling support, based in L.A. Unified, even after students enter college.

The sobering news is that L.A. Unified — like the typical urban school system — 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. Because of the time lag and the slow release of data, 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 a higher total are getting degrees, even if the percentage of college grads remains frustratingly low.

A companion study suggests one reason that high school graduates are not ready to stick 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 Los Angeles Education Research Institute (LAERI), a nonprofit this is partnering with L.A. Unified.

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