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Most LA Unified grads make it to college, but only a quarter finish on time, new data shows

File photo: California senators approved a measure that would fix a problem that kept 5,000 seniors in the Class of 2015 from taking the high school exit exam and graduating.
Crystal Marie Lopez/Flickr
File photo: California senators approved a measure that would fix a problem that kept 5,000 seniors in the Class of 2015 from taking the high school exit exam and graduating.

Werner Quintanilla graduated last June from West Adams Preparatory High School in Los Angeles. The new English major at Los Angeles City College in some ways embodies some of the findings of new research released on Wednesday by the Los Angeles Education Research Institute.

In a pair of studies, researchers found that 70 percent of LA Unified’s graduates enrolled in college right after high school. Most of those enroll in two-year colleges like Los Angeles City College – about twice as many enroll in two-year programs than in four-year colleges and universities.

“It’s fairly comparable to other large urban areas,” said Kyo Yamashiro, executive director of the Los Angeles Education Research Institute “I think there’s always room for improvement.”

But, researchers also found, only 25 percent of those graduates finish a degree within six years. 

The research examined college enrollment and completion rates and the barriers to these milestones. Yamashiro said it’s the first time such comprehensive data from L.A. Unified has been gathered to shed light on efforts to improve college-going and college completion rates.

The studies come at a key time for school district officials. Graduation rates and college enrollment rates are increasing, but there appear to be wide gaps in some helping all students.

One of the gaps is counseling. While high school counselors told researchers that they have enough information to help students finish college and financial aid applications, more than half of counselors said they didn’t have enough time to help students with the help they needed.

Quintanilla can attest to that.

“I was trying to work on financial aid today and I realized that I actually might have used a bit of extra help,” he said.

There were often lines to sit down with high school counselors, he said, and the counselors did what they could, but Quintanilla said the help finding ways to pay for college wasn’t enough.

The financial burden is a big one for him because his family cannot help him pay for all his college bills. He has tuition covered but wonders how he’s going to pay for books and other costs.

The financial hurdles, along with insufficient academic preparation to do well in college end up killing the higher education dreams for many L.A. Unified graduates. The findings bear that out. Of the school district graduates who end up going to college, 75 percent will not earn a degree within six years.

“It is a problem nationally that kids who are going to college aren’t finishing college," said Meredith Phillips a co-author of the studies who’s a professor at UCLA. "Probably the most important barrier to completion is academic preparation."

The school district can do more to push students to earn higher grades on college prep classes that the district already requires students to complete in order to earn a high school diploma, researchers said. Colleges require a grade of C or better on in those classes. L.A. Unified allows students to earn a D and still earn a diploma.

The study is the first comprehensive study produced by the institute since its founding five years ago. L.A. Unified officials are working closely with the institute to provide access to educators and data. Administrators have already used some of the findings earlier this year to successfully apply for grant money to help students go to college.

“Things that we are focusing on right now as a result of this research is college and career coaches at our middle schools,” along with more counselors at high schools and social workers to help students, said Frances Gipson, L.A. Unified’s Chief Academic Officer. 

New this year, for high school students in the school district, Gipson said, is a computer-based program called Naviance that helps students plan for college by helping them come up with goals, create a resume, research colleges, list college applications, and reminds them to fill out financial aid applications.

Werner Quintanilla didn’t benefit from that help. He qualified for and was accepted to California State University San Francisco but couldn’t come up with the money or financial aid to pay for it. He’s hoping to transfer to a four-year college, but for now, community college isn’t exciting him.

“I’m surprised at how much it’s like high school," he said. "I have a ton of friends who go here. I’m hoping to see the differences more over time."