Repairing California’s Ladder to Opportunity: Making Sure That Hard-Working Families Can Prosper

Nearly 60 percent of low-income working families in California have no education beyond high school, the largest share of any state. A new report from the Campaign for College Opportunity and the Women’s Foundation of California, Working Hard, Left Behind, draws attention to the state’s more than 1.3 million low-income working families, highlights the critical link between higher education and economic mobility, and calls for changes to improve the educational pathway to opportunity.

A large proportion of California’s working families — more than a third — are low income, defined as making below 200 percent of the poverty line, or $45,397 for a family of four in 2011. Improving the educational attainment of these working families has the potential to boost their earnings and improve their employment prospects. A college degree is strongly tied to economic security and mobility: On the whole, only Californians with bachelor’s degrees made strong wage gains over the past generation, and, since the recession, job growth nationwide has largely benefited those with education beyond a high school diploma.

Improving access to higher education is a key step that California can and must take to improve economic opportunity for low-income working families. Recent research suggests that every dollar California invests in higher education pays off with a return of $4.50, so this step is also likely to strengthen the state’s economy.

Working Hard, Left Behind outlines actions policymakers can take to improve the state’s pathways to higher education and vocational training and certification. These include:

  • Improving and expanding financial aid options for nontraditional students such as older working adults.
  • Strengthening the delivery of basic skills instruction so that more students can transition into college-level courses.
  • Prioritizing educational resources such as orientation, counseling and advising, and other support services that promote student success and degree completion, particularly for low-income students.
  • Creating a public agenda for higher education that sets clear goals for preparing high school students for college, transitioning adult students into higher education and the workforce, and increasing certificate and degree completion rates.

Of course, the pathway to higher education and workforce success arguably begins as early as preschool. Making sure kids in California’s K-12 public schools have the resources they need to get on track toward higher education must also be a priority for policymakers. A CBP report out tomorrow will look at the current debate surrounding a major policy proposal intended to strengthen educational equity. Moving Forward: Addressing Inequities in School Finance Through the Governor’s Local Control Funding Formula examines Governor Jerry Brown’s bid to direct additional funding to school districts with a larger proportion of disadvantaged students. Stay tuned.

— Hope Richardson