Ensuring Equity in College Preparation

UCLA professor Jeannie O. outlines the six conditions that make a difference in high school graduates’ preparation and eligibility to attend four-year colleges and universities. Read on to learn more about Ensuring Equity in College Preparation.

Census data tells us that for every 100 European American, African American and Latino students who finish elementary school, some time later, 86 of the European Americans will finish high school and 24 will get a bachelor’s degree. For African-Americans, only 76 will finish high school and 11 will achieve a bachelor’s degree. For Latinos, it is even worse: only 45 will graduate from high school and only six will receive a bachelor’s degree.

These disparities are the focus of this presentation and the following are the key points that will be made:

  • Research has shown that there are six critical conditions that make college access possible for all children.
  • California’s disparities are caused, in part by policies and structures in schools that prevent the critical conditions being available to everyone in a systematic way.
  • Most college access programs provide extra support to students whose schools lack these conditions—but they don’t do anything that changes conditions permanently or in an ongoing manner.

This provides K-16 partnerships an opportunity to step in and not only offer support but also change school conditions. K-16 partnerships must become political and seriously advocate for policies that make the critical conditions “normal” for everyone, rather than the exception limited to only a few.

There is ample research that demonstrates that six key factors make a difference in students graduating from high school prepared and eligible for four-year colleges and universities. The factors are:

  • A college-going culture.
  • Rigorous academic curriculum.
  • High-quality teaching.
  • Extra support, as needed.
  • Multi-cultural college-going identity.
  • Family connections and social networks.

These factors are important not just for poor children or children of color. Every student who goes to college needs these conditions. This is the normal, expected “stuff” of dinner conversations at middle-class, college-going families—but they are not seen as normal parts of the life of a child of color or a child from a poverty background.

College-going culture: A college-going culture is when educators, parents, and students share the belief that all students should have the opportunity to go to college. They believe that college attendance is attainable. And they consider the effort and persistence that preparation for college requires as a normal part of growing up. Then, they act in ways that are consistent with these beliefs. But for many students, the education system has low expectations and provides few college-relevant opportunities.

Rigorous Academic Curriculum: Students have to be in a place where they have an opportunity to engage in the significance of subject matter content that is required to be ready for courses in college. Dozens of studies have proven that the most important factor in whether a student goes to college is the level of challenge in the courses they take in high school. But the statistics tell us this is what students find in our schools.

Not enough textbooks or textbooks of poor quality: In a survey of teachers, 12 percent report that there are not enough texts for students to use in class, 32 percent say there are not enough for students to take home to do homework, 17 percent say the texts are of poor quality and 18 percent say they are not aligned with the state standards. The figures are the worst for schools that have high percentages of students from low-income families (see Chart 6).

Chart 6—Heaviest Burden on Low-income Students:

. Total Sample of Teachers 100%


Teachers in Schools with the Highest CalWorks Eligibility 20% of the sample


Teachers in Schools with the Lowest CalWorks Eligibility 20% of the sample


Shortage of texts to use in class 12% 12% 11%
Shortage of texts for students to take home 32% 42% 27%
Textbooks and materials of only fair or poor quality 17% 20% 9%
Textbooks with only fair or poor coverage of standards 18% 21% 15%

Disproportionate enrollment in rigorous programs, such as Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) and Advanced Placement (AP). Chart 7 demonstrates that even in large schools—which typically offer more Advanced Placement courses—there are far fewer courses available when the schools have high proportions of minority students. For example, in schools with more than 2,000 students, there is an average of 10 AP courses when schools have fewer than 10 percent minorities, compared to an average of almost seven courses when the school has more than 75 percent minorities.

Chart 7—AP Courses Offered in California Schools by School Enrollment and Percent Black and Latino:

Percent Black and Latino
Enrollment 0-10% 10-25% 25-50% 50-75% 75-100%
1-500 0.70 0.64 0.78 0.50 0.56
500-1,000 3.57 2.80 2.46 2.64 2.07
1,000-1,500 5.00 4.92 4.60 3.56 3.07
1,500-2,000 5.38 5.48 5.63 5.70 4.42
2000+ 10.12 9.30 6.77 6.81 6.75

Source: Tomas Rivera Center, 2009

Low University of California (UC) eligibility at high school graduation for African-Americans and Latinos. While 12.7 percent of white students and 30 percent of Asian students have taken appropriate courses to be eligible to apply for UC admission at graduation, only 2.8 percent of African-Americans and 3.8 percent of Latinos are eligible.

High-quality teaching: Each child needs access to teaching that makes a rigorous curriculum accessible and sensible. In California, 24 percent of schools had more than 20 percent of underqualified teachers on staff in 2010-2011. That is more than 1,900 schools serving more than 1.7 million students. Of those schools, 1,700 are in the highest poverty category (76 percent of more students in the free or subsidized meal program). And research has shown that minority students are five times more likely than non-minority students to have an underprepared teacher. On average, underprepared teachers make up 26 percent of teachers in schools with 90 percent minority students. Schools with minority and poor students also have a disproportionate share of less-experienced teachers (those in their first or second year of teaching).

Extra support, as needed: Many students need intensive academic and college-going support. They need additional opportunities to learn and to navigate the “hidden curriculum” of college access. Most students don’t know how to find extra help when they need it unless an adult steps in and directs them. In a middle-class family, they get that help. But if a student has to rely on the school system, they may be left without help. The recommended ratio for students per counselor is 250:1. California, which as a ration of 945:1 in K-12 schools, is ranked 51st nationally. In addition, most college-access support programs are small, selective and marginalized. For example, there are 65,000 AVID students in more than 800 schools. Yet AVID remains a “special” program for “selected” students rather than a part of the core curriculum for all who need it.

Multi-cultural college-going identity. When this exists, students see college as integral to their identities—the norm in middle-class families. They have the confidence and skills to negotiate college without sacrificing their own identity and connection with their home communities. This is very much about the institutions and whether students feel a sense of connection—or whether they feel they are leaving their own environment to enter a hostile one “owned” by a different culture.

Parent advocacy and activism is largely a white, middle-class phenomenon. Soccer moms have great networks of information – how to get a waiver, what teachers are the best in which subjects, who is the right tutor when a child needs extra.

Family connections: Parent advocacy and activism is largely a white, middle-class phenomenon. Soccer moms have great networks of information—how to get a waiver, what teachers are the best in which subjects, who is the right tutor when a child needs extra help. They also know how to work their way through the college admissions process—it’s amazing how many admissions are irregular. That’s not necessarily bad, but the processes ought to be accessible to everyone. All students need access to knowledge about school quality and college preparation, as well as connections with college-savvy social networks.

For most low-income communities, there are few connections to college-savvy social networks. And most parent participation projects don’t cover these kinds of topics. In fact, the rules for good parent involvement work against the kind of networking and system maneuvering that middle-class families take advantage of. If parents follow those rules, the students often don’t get what they need. Parents need to know how to ask questions at school and how to get the information they need about their child and how to get the information they need about their child and how to meet his or her needs.

So what can K-16 partnerships do about these conditions? They can create the critical conditions that are needed in school to prepare all students for college. They need to pursue a variety of strategies, including:

  • A college-going culture: “coaches” for a school-wide college culture; specific tools for college counseling and data teams examining opportunities and outcomes.
  • Rigorous academic curriculum: standards-based preparation in elementary grade; pre-algebra for all middle-grade students; college-prep algebra for all 9th graders; UC’s a-g requirements as standard high school requirements; lessons of high intellectual quality; adequate texts, lab materials and technology access; concurrent enrollment in community college courses; AP courses and rigorous UC-approved alternatives to AP.
  • High-quality teaching well-qualified teachers are recruited and supported; well-qualified teachers provide instruction that engages students in work of high intellectual quality and they make the college preparatory curriculum accessible to diverse groups of learners; professional development that prepares experienced teachers to reach rigorous academic to diverse classes (with in-class coaching and academies for student and teacher learning).
  • Extra support, as needed: After-school and Saturday academic classes, tutoring, counseling and mentoring; backup classes; summer “bridge” classes, SAT, and AP prep courses, coaching about college admissions and financial aid; help with constructing their application; other assistance in navigating the college-going process.
  • Multi-cultural college-going identity: Professional development programs that prepare teachers to connect AP classes to the multi-cultural curriculum; community- and school-based mentoring programs; campus visits and residential programs.

Family connections: Opportunities for parent learning about curriculum, teaching, and college; connections with community-based organizations concerned with education reform; parent activism around better schooling and college access.

Above all, K-16 partnerships must press for policies that make the six critical conditions normal in schools. There is a powerful opportunity in the next six to eight months: providing input into the K-16 Master Plan for California Education, now being reviewed by the Legislature. This is the state’s effort to engage in careful, long-range planning to make a seamless education system from preschool through college.

There are things in the proposed master plan that if they hold and are adopted can help smooth the way for making partnerships and the six critical conditions normal throughout California’s schools. For those who care about equity and access for all students in California, this is a wonderful opportunity.

As it is proposed now, the plan focuses on learning, frames a policy to ensure that the conditions and opportunities that learning requires are there for all, and established system-wide accountability for learning and the conditions of learning. There is a separate section on K-16 collaboration that established a faculty body from all segments of education to review and recommend changes related to alignment and coordination of curricula, assessment, admissions, and placement. It envisions developing regional initiatives to support the transition of students through the educational system. And expands the reward system to recognize K-16 collaboration as necessary and valuable.

The Legislature is taking public input on these proposals, both through public hearings and by electronic mail. The next six months are critical for working out the bills that will implement the plan. K-16 partnerships must get involved in these processes because they have a great deal to offer about why these changes are critical and necessary.