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Many Are Ill-Prepared for College, Study Finds

Schools: State offers low-cost education, but does a so-so job of getting pupils ready, report says.


California remains the nation's leader in providing low-cost public college education to its residents, but otherwise does a mediocre job of helping students prepare for college and earn degrees, according to a report released Tuesday.

California has delivered "a middling performance, and it hasn't improved much over the past couple of years," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the San Jose-based nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, which prepared the study.

The state's efforts to get students into college and to help them graduate, Callan said, "probably aren't good enough to sustain the economy of the state, much less provide the kind of individual opportunity that young people and older people in California want."

The report, called "Measuring Up 2002," found that California provides the most affordable college educations among the 50 states mainly because of its low fees for community college. The state's public two-year schools usually charge full-time students from $264 to $330 a year in attendance fees.

California also scored well overall in measures of the portion of its residents who attend college, finishing 12th-highest among the 50 states.

But Callan warned that the state's budget problems, and the rising numbers of young people reaching college age, raise the prospect of student fee increases.

He said those trends also threaten to force colleges to turn away increasing numbers of applicants.

To deal with the pending shortage of space for new students, he said, "The state doesn't have a bad plan. It has no plan at all."

The study, a follow-up to a report issued two years ago, ranked the states according to five criteria, based on federal statistics and its own formulas for gauging support for higher education.

California was found to be first in affordability, eighth in deriving economic benefits from the higher education received by its residents, 35th in college completion and 37th in preparing students for college.

But one of the most surprising parts of the report was a finding that the percentage of California students who completed high school in four years and went directly to college fell abruptly from 43.4% in 1998 to 34.5% in 2000, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available.

However, ZoAnn V. Laurente, senior policy analyst for the California Postsecondary Education Commission, questioned the reliability of those college attendance figures. She said the drop might be largely the result of a change in software systems for reporting such statistics that many of the state's community colleges made during those years.

"We would be concerned if there were a serious drop-off in college-going in our state, but our data doesn't give us that indication," Laurente said.

Callan countered, however, that data-reporting problems could not account for all of the decline. He speculated that the strong economy in the late 1990s, by providing more jobs for people who lacked college educations, may have played a role in keeping people out of school. Callan also noted the high dropout rates and low college attendance among Latinos in their teens and early 20s.

Still, he said, the apparent decline in high school students heading to college reflected in the figures for 1998-2000 might already have ended, as evidenced by the climbing enrollment over the last two years in the state's two-year and four-year colleges. The weaker economy, he said, may be spurring more people to attend college to improve their prospects in the job market.

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