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Valley educational achievement rates lag behind state. What’s being done?

2017 Fresno State commencement

In a sea of mortarboards, the one with "U.S. Marine" on it stood out. So did the man wearing it, Patricio Galindo of Selma, won one of the top honorees at Fresno State's 2017 commencement.
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In a sea of mortarboards, the one with "U.S. Marine" on it stood out. So did the man wearing it, Patricio Galindo of Selma, won one of the top honorees at Fresno State's 2017 commencement.

People who have a higher level of education typically have greater potential for earning higher incomes. But a new report details the lack of opportunities for college degrees for some students in California’s schools.

The study by the Public Policy Institute of California reinforces what economic development and educational leaders have long described: that areas such as the central San Joaquin Valley, where educational attainment levels are lower than most of the state, are also bedeviled by overall lower average wages and income for residents.

“A college degree is the ticket to a good job and upward mobility in California,” said Hans Johnson, director of the PPIC’s Higher Education Center and co-author of the report. “While improvements in high school graduation rates and college preparation are encouraging, the state needs to take further action to realize the importance of higher education as an engine of social mobility for all our children.”

Fresno County’s educational attainment and average earnings show how dramatic the differences can be. While there is a gap in median earnings between men and women at various education levels, figures from the U.S. Census Bureau reflect the correlation between higher education and higher income.

“In California, the typical full-time year-round worker with only a high school diploma earns $36,000, while the typical worker with at least a bachelor’s degree earns $80,000” a year, the report states. “In the last few decades wages have increased more for those with a college or advanced degree than for those with lower levels of education.”

The advantages of higher education, however, include more than just monetary rewards. “College-educated workers are more likely to participate in the labor force, less likely to be unemployed, and more likely to have jobs that provide additional non-wage compensation, such as paid vacation, employer-provided health insurance, and retirement plans,” the report states.

“One of the challenges for the Valley and the Fresno region is to find ways to encourage students who have success to find and create employment in the region, and that’s easier said than done,” Johnson said. “A lot of college graduates move from the San Joaquin Valley to other parts of the state to find work, and so part of the job is trying to capture that home-grown talent.”

But while the proportion of adults in Valley counties who never graduated from high school is higher than most of the state, the share of residents in who have at least a bachelor’s degree is lower than many other California counties. Additionally, there is a considerable racial and ethnic disparity for who has a college degree and who doesn’t.

In Fresno County, for instance, about one out of every five adults has at least a bachelor’s degree. But among Latinos, that share shrinks to fewer than one in 10, compared to almost two out of 10 African Americans and almost one out of three white or Asian residents.

“Although the last few decades have seen significant gains in college access, college-going rates remain unequal across demographic and socioeconomic groups,” the PPIC study found. However, the report also states that “too many students who enter college never earn a degree. Low-income, first-generation, Latino and African-American college students are even less likely to complete college than other students.”

Benjamin Duran, executive director of the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium, acknowledged the demographics that work against Latinos and other disadvantaged students. “We’re trying to find ways for low-income and disadvantaged students to do better,” Duran said. “If you look at them, they’re coming from poorer ZIP codes, and they’re coming from an environment where they may be the first generation to go to college.”

The consortium – whose members include community colleges, California State University campuses and five independent colleges in the greater San Joaquin Valley from San Joaquin County south through Kern County – is working on a regional level to remove barriers and improve pathways for students to attend college and complete a degree.

One such barrier is the limited capacity of universities in the region. “We have sixth- or seventh-year seniors who haven’t been able to get out” – some because of limited numbers of the classes they need to graduate, Duran said, and others because they choose to go to school part-time instead of full-time. “We want to encourage students to become full-time, take full loads of classes and apply for student aid to allow them to be able to do that.”

Because many of the Valley’s CSU campuses are dealing with more students than they can handle in a traditional four-year pathway, “we’re losing a lot of our kids to coastal, southern California or even out-of-state schools,” Duran said. “We’re losing talent that never comes home. … We try to talk to students about exploring alternative paths, like the private or independent colleges and universities. they may think it’s too expensive. But if you look at four years at a private college versus six years or more at a CSU, it can start to pencil out.”

Educators are also exploring ways to help lower-performing students have greater success in the basic English and math classes that are required to move forward toward their degrees.

“One thing that keeps students from achieving their degree is they can’t get through those ‘gateway’ English and math classes to compete for their bachelor’s degree,” Duran said. One possible solution is to offer “co-requisite remediation,” or classes that help get those students’ language and math skills up to speed at the same time that they’re taking the required class.

In some cases, students who have the added support of a co-remediation class “are doing as well, if not better, than the regular student population,” Duran said. “Once you get 70 or 75 percent of kids through those gateway courses, then they’re on their way. These things we’re talking about, they change the entire game, and everybody gets to play.”

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