California: Accelerating Hispanic Attainment

Success Factors

California has 4 out of 6.


There must be a vision for what a state wants to achieve, from governors or other key policy makers.


Leadership vision must be backed by a clear policy agenda, based on evidence, that is adopted and implemented.


As policy is being implemented, aligned supports – including funding – are provided to increase the chances for success.

Strategic Alignment

Intentional coordination is made across policy and funding to better connect work in Early childhood, K-12, Postsecondary, and Workforce.

Stakeholder Engagement

Efforts to improve student success are backed by stakeholders with a vested interest in improved outcomes (parents, students, the business community, advocates, philanthropies).

Sustained Commitment

Improving access to opportunity for all young people requires efforts to be sustained, often over many years and across political administrations.

Key takeaway

California’s strategic policy alignment and targeted stakeholder engagement and support has led to strong, steady progress in closing attainment gaps, especially for Hispanic students. In fourth-grade reading, a nine percentage point increase from 2011 to 2019 means that about 24,000 more Hispanic students each year meet proficiency standards statewide. 

The wins

California is making strong, consistent gains across several indicators. 

  • Impressive gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card, in reading and math proficiency from 2011 to 2019:
    • Fourth-grade reading proficiency increased by eight percentage points, the third-largest improvement among 50 states, including a nine-point gain for Hispanic students.  This equates to 34,000 additional fourth-graders reading proficiently every year, including 24,000 additional Hispanic students on track in reading.
    • Eighth-grade reading proficiency increased by six percentage points, the biggest improvement of any state.  Hispanic students increased reading proficiency by five percentage points.
    • Eighth-grade math proficiency also increased by three percentage points.
  • In post-secondary attainment from 2014 to 2018:
    • The number of 18-to-24-year-olds with an associate degree or higher increased by two percentage points, which means an additional 71,000 young adults had degrees before turning 25.
    • The number of 25-to-34-year-olds with a bachelor’s or higher degree improved by four percentage points, among the top scoring states.  That includes a three-point gain by Hispanic 25-to-34-year-olds.
  • The number of Black and Hispanic young people aged 18 to 34 who are employed or enrolled in post-secondary programs from 2014 to 2018 improved by two to three points, the most consistent, strong increases among the four most populous states.
  • College participation rates (the proportion of recent high school graduates enrolling in college within 12 months) increased by four percentage points from 2014 to 2018.  That’s equivalent to almost 17,000 more California high school graduates going on to college each year than five years earlier.

How it happens

California’s significant improvements in increasing attainment rates and the number of degrees awarded is due to leadership’s focus on strategic alignment of policy and supports, while a robust set of advocacy groups provided stakeholder engagement


California implemented several policies specifically focused on increasing equity, including a focus on transfers, reforms to remedial education, addressing the cost of college beyond tuition and fees, and increasing associate degree completion at the community colleges through and after the Great Recession. For example, at the community-college level, the state focused on reducing developmental education in order to get students into credit-bearing college-level English and math classes as quickly as possible. The California Community College System offered the Associate Degree for Transfer, which guarantees a transfer spot in partner colleges and universities.


The state increased funding to need-based financial aid, and California policymakers responded to the rising cost of tuition and fees. California ranks among the top 10 states in the amount of grant aid—which students don’t have to pay back—it provides per student. In the 2016–17 school year, the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) distributed just under $1,200 per full-time equivalent undergraduate student, about $400 more than the national average. 

There are several state aid programs, including the California Promise Grant and the Middle Class Scholarship, but the primary source of aid is the Cal Grant program. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of Cal Grant recipients increased by 65% (from 209,169 to 345,739), and state grant aid rose to cover tuition hikes during the Great Recession. As a result, Cal Grant spending more than doubled, from about $1 billion to $2.3 billion.

Stakeholder Engagement

Advocacy groups such as the Campaign for College Opportunity and TICAS provided strong support for California’s policy goals. Specifically, the Campaign for College Opportunity prioritizes policies such as transfer pathway reform, redesigning remedial education, modifying Proposition 209, which prohibits affirmative action, and focusing on a student-centered funding formula in the state. The Campaign raises millions of dollars for its work and has engaged 10,460 civil rights, legislative, business, and student leaders. TICAS also focuses on engaging stakeholders in the state with a priority on policies including affordability through financial aid and advocating for institutional accountability

Strategic Alignment

California has made great strides in aligning the rapidly changing demographic and economic landscape of the state with future workforce needs. The state aims to fulfill those workforce needs by better connecting higher education policy strategies such as increasing both enrollment and completion measures, adding opportunities for adults to learn new skills that employers desire, and aligning higher education with the demands of regional economies.

Why it matters

California has demonstrated strong evidence of improvement in the post-secondary sector, especially for Hispanic students. The number of degrees awarded per capita – overall as well as for Black and Hispanic populations – has grown faster than most other states.

What to watch

While there are positive trends for Hispanic students, there are worrying signs for Black students whose enrollments in post-secondary education are declining. Black enrollments in California’s community colleges declined 21% and fell 5.6% at CSU from 201 to 2018 while the state’s Black population remains consistent.