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Higher Education and Secondary Alignment

Strategy No. 3 in A Blueprint For Great Schools report from the Transition Advisory Team dated August 9, 2011.

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In Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, Christensen, Horn & Johnson note that we have moved the goalposts of success from needing one third of our students to graduate from college to needing two thirds of our students to complete higher education to be qualified for the jobs that will exist.

A recent forecast by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) showed that most of the growth in jobs between now and 2018 will be in white collar jobs in the professional, service, administrative, and sales areas. The more than 40 million new jobs in these areas compare to fewer than 10 million new jobs in traditional blue collar fields. There will be no new jobs in manufacturing through 2018 and low job growth in areas like maintenance and repair, construction, farming, fishing, and forestry.15

In the same report, the BLS forecasted the types of degrees required to meet these job requirements. As Figure 2 shows, the largest proportional increases in employment are expected in jobs that require at least an associate's degree, and most require a bachelor's degree or more.

Figure 2: Percent Change in Employment, by
Education or Training Category,  2008-18 (Projected)
Type Percentage
Associate degree 19%
Master's degree 18%
First professional degree 18%
Bachelor's degree 17%
Doctoral degree 17%
Postsecondary vocational award 13%
Bachelor's or higher degree, plus work experience 8%
Moderate-term on-the-job training 8%
Work experience in a related occupation 8%
Short-term on-the-job training 8%
Long-term on-the-job training 8%

Preparing our young people for this new economy will require major changes in California's secondary and higher education systems. While older Californians are among the most educated groups of people in the world, Californians under 35 now rank near the bottom of other industrialized nations. Currently, 38.6 percent of adult Californians have some type of a college degree, putting the state 21st among the U.S. in degree completion. For Californians under 35, the attainment level drops to 35.9 percent, moving California to 30th. This decline is occurring primarily because of declining high school graduation and college-going rates; it does not yet take into account additional declines that will soon show up because of budget-related enrollment rollbacks and tuition increases.

Absent any improvements, California's labor market is projected to be short one million college educated workers by 2025, leading to the most severe drop in per-capita income in the nation.

Clearly, we must strengthen the pathway to high school graduation and post-secondary degree completion. This will mean embracing policies and strategies that will drive a more productive alignment between the secondary and higher education systems, and a focus on the kinds of learning that will pay off in college and career success.

One aspect of this evolution should be an ongoing rethinking of the "A-G" requirements—a system that is unique to California—along with the California Standards Tests in high school. While the A-G requirements guiding high school courses are intended to clarify standards and enhance equity, the century-old conception underlying the A-G list, when combined with the specific end-of-course tests required by the California Standards Testing system (14 in all, including the CAHSEE), have made it difficult for the secondary school curriculum to evolve to meet 21st century needs. For example, because of the twin sets of constraints, California students—unlike their peers across the country—cannot typically take courses in technology and engineering, marine science or biotechnology, statistics, or career and technical fields, except as electives, primarily in their senior year. This limits their ability to build programs of study that will take full advantage of their interests and talents and prepare them effectively for contemporary careers and college majors.

While there are investments needed to create a more productive system, there are also growing costs to a failure to act. For example:
  • Adults with less than a high school diploma in 2008 earned only $20,000 per year, whereas those with some postsecondary education or an associate's degree earned $37,000—85 percent more.16
  • There is a strong correlation between low levels of education and criminal activity, with high school dropouts five to eight times more likely to be incarcerated.17
  • Immigrants lacking a high school diploma or a GED are 15 percent less likely to become naturalized citizens.18

Ultimately, California must ensure that its public and private sectors will be able to tap into a pool of talented, well-educated citizens, who will bring creativity, invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, industriousness, and high levels of productivity to the state's future.

A number of recent initiatives show promise in achieving this goal. The newly-adopted Common Core Standards initiative focuses on the skills needed for success in college and careers. These standards provide an opportunity for the higher education and K-12 systems to collaboratively design a more thoughtful and streamlined curriculum and assessment system that connects high school to postsecondary learning and employment opportunities.

California also has pockets of excellence in career and technical education programs in school districts throughout the state aimed simultaneously at preparing students for college and careers. One especially promising example is the California Linked Learning District Initiative funded by the James Irvine Foundation through ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career. Linked Learning programs offer students a multi-year program of study that includes rigorous, college preparatory academics along with connections to individual student interests and learning needs through experiential, work-based learning and student supports. Students in Linked Learning programs are able to choose among themed pathways in fields such as engineering, arts and media, and biomedicine and health. They create an engaging student-centered learning environment based on the belief that all students can achieve at high levels if they are taught in active and authentic ways. These kinds of programs connect learning with student interests and career preparation leading to higher graduation rates, increased postsecondary enrollment, higher earning potential, and greater civic engagement.19

Higher Education and Secondary Alignment Key Recommendations

To increase high school and postsecondary graduation rates and prepare students for the new economy they will be entering, CDE should:
  • Reinvest in funding for and improvements to our higher education systems and protect Cal Grants as a way to ensure higher education remains achievable for our students.
  • Work with UC, CSU, and CCC to establish and define California College and Career Readiness Standards, along with performance goals and reporting systems, and align assessments for K-12 accountability, college admissions, and college placement.
  • Remove regulatory and fiscal barriers to dual enrollment of high school students in college coursework to engage in rigorous curricular pathways in aligned sequences leading to bachelor's degrees or career-technical education credit.
  • Establish, with other agencies, a longitudinal data repository that links databases from community colleges, K-12 (CALPADS), higher education (CPEC), and the Employment Development Department in order to track degree attainment, job placement, career path, and workforce success of students.
  • Create strong Linked Learning pathways to college and careers by evaluating and investing in innovative, personalized high school models that engage students in academic and applied learning, and by modernizing A-G requirements while revamping high school assessments. Implement key recommendations from the AB 2648 Multiple Pathways to Student Success Plan published in 2010.


15. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook External link opens in new window or tab. (PDF), 2010-11 Edition, Overview of the 2008-18 Projections.

16. U.S. Census Bureau. (2008). 2008 American Community Survey 1-year estimates. Table B20004. Median Earnings in the Past 12 Months (in 2008 Inflation-Adjusted Dollars) by Sex by Educational Attainment for the Population 25 Years and Over — Universe: Population 25 Years and Over With Earnings Data Set. Retrieved January 5, 2011, from American FactFinder External link opens in new window or tab..

17. Moretti, E. (2007). Crime and the costs of criminal justice. In C. Belfield & H. Levin (Eds.). The Price We Pay: Economic and Social Consequences of Inadequate Education. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

18. Wolfe, B., & Zuvekas, S. (1995). Nonmarket outcomes of schooling. Washington, DC: Institute for Research on Poverty.

19. Multiple Pathways to Student Success: Envisioning the New California High School (California Department of Education, 2010).

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Questions:   Dina Fong | | 916-319-0551
Last Reviewed: Friday, January 24, 2020