Fewer than 4 in 10 California high school students are completing the requirements to be eligible for the state's public universities, fueling worries of a shortage of college-educated workers when the value of a bachelor's degree has never been higher.
To meet entrance requirements, high school students must complete 15 classes with a grade of C or better, including foreign language, lab science, intermediate algebra, and visual or performing arts.
At the current rate, educators and policy experts say, far too few students are finishing high school with the minimum coursework needed even to apply to a University of California or California State University campus.
In 1994, 32 percent of public school graduates met the course and grade prerequisites, known as "A-G requirements" because they cover seven subject areas. For the Class of 2012, it was 38 percent.
"We need young adults to be successful in the future economy of our state, and to be successful, an increasing number of them will need to go to and graduate from college. And the A-G course completion share, while it's going up, is not sufficiently high to meet that economic need," said Public Policy Institute of California Senior Fellow Hans Johnson, who has estimated the state will have 1 million fewer college graduates than it needs in 2025, if current trends continue.
The sobering numbers do not tell the whole story, according to John Rogers, director of UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. Once students who drop out or do not finish high school in four years are removed from the equation, the proportion of public high school graduates who met the UC and CSU entrance criteria in 2012 drops to 30 percent statewide, 20 percent for Latinos and 18 percent for African-Americans, Rogers said.
"They speak to a huge gap between the expectations that parents and students have, which is that if they complete a rigorous high school curriculum they will be college-eligible, and the sorts of outcomes that are emerging from our K-12 system," he said.
Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have made a push in recent years to prepare their students for college by updating their high school graduation requirements to include four years of math and English, the course of study that Achieve, a nonprofit education reform group based in Washington, considers essential to post-secondary success.
California's high school graduation requirements, which have not been substantially revised in more than a decade, only require two years of math, three years of English and no foreign language or science labs. Students hoping to study at one of the state's 32 public universities must opt into the courses that make up the more strenuous A-G sequence and repeat the classes if they do not earn a C.
For families without previous higher education experience or living in communities without enough guidance counselors, chemistry sections or money for private tutors, "that's a big hurdle," said Michele Siqueiros, executive director of Campaign for College Opportunity. She said she often meets parents and students who are devastated to learn, in the child's junior or senior year, that they do not meet the entrance requirements for the state's public universities.
"I always tell folks that not everybody who works at a high school sees it as their responsibility to prepare your kid for college. They see it as their responsibility to get kids to graduate from high school," said Siqueiros, whose group has examined the college achievement gap for blacks and Latinos in California.
With Latino children now a majority of California's public school students, community groups increasingly are framing the problem as a civil rights issue and lobbying local school districts to put more young people on the college track by aligning their own graduation requirements with the A-G requirements.
Students in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and several other districts now are expected to complete the 15-course sequence, although they can still earn a high school diploma even if they earn D's. In Los Angeles Unified School District, the state's largest, this year's 9th graders will be required to pass each of the prescribed classes with at least a C by graduation.
"We are not saying every student will be guaranteed of going into college because there are additional requirements the colleges have, a certain GPA being one, a certain score on the ACT or SAT are another," said Nader Delnavaz, LAUSD's administrative coordinator for college and career education. "What we are saying is we are not having a two-track or three-track high school diploma."
In June, San Francisco Unified School District will graduate its first class that had to meet the minimum college entrance requirement. Jessica Hernandez, 17, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School, had hoped to attend UC Berkeley but got a D in geometry in 10th grade, had to repeat it, got behind in some classes and saw her grades slide.
Hernandez now plans to attend community college and hopes to go to Berkeley as a junior and become the first in her family to earn a degree. Meantime, she has offered advice to her younger sister who will start at Lincoln next fall.
"I've already been telling her that if she needs help, there is help here," she said. "I've told her it is stressful, but if you keep up with all your work, it will pay off."
Administrators say the switch to college-prep for all involves more than doing away with low-level math and science and is not a magic fix. Before San Jose Unified adopted the A-G course requirements starting in 1998, about 37 percent of its graduates were eligible for admission to a UC or CSU school. By 2012, it had risen only to 44 percent.
Thousands of students throughout the state are missing out on being deemed "A-G eligible" by virtue of one or two D grades, says Linda Murray, who was superintendent in San Jose when it updated its graduation requirements and now helps other districts.
That phenomenon suggests the problem is not standards that are out of reach for some but inadequate "safety nets" for young people, said Murray, now superintendent-in-residence for The Education Trust-West, an advocacy group addressing racial disparities in education.
"The right question isn't: `Should every kid go to college?' The question is: `Who should decide?"' Murray said. "It just seems to me the right thing to do is to make sure the doors are kept open so they have good choices when they are 18 years old."