To The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

June 3rd, 2015

This testimony was given by Michele Siqueiros, President of The Campaign for College Opportunity on May 29, 2015 to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Commissioners, thank you for inviting me before you today. I serve as the President of a California statewide non-profit organization, the Campaign for College Opportunity. But my favorite title is college graduate, especially because it was an improbable title for me to get. My opportunity to go to college and succeed was directly a result of good policy and investments by the federal government and my state to provide me with the opportunity and financial aid. As the first in my family to go to college, that dream would not have been possible without my ability to access federally subsidized student loans, work study resources, Cal Grant state financial aid, and a matching institutional scholarship from my Alma Mater. And while my college journey is 20 years old, this is still true for most low-income students across this country.

This is exactly why the Campaign for College Opportunity was founded in 2003 by an alliance of organizations, including the California Business Roundtable, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the Community College League of California. This alliance believed strongly in the power of Californians to revive the historic promise of the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education: to provide an opportunity for every eligible student in the state to go to college, regardless of race or income status – just as the opportunity had been provided to Baby Boomers in the 1960’s. Our belief is that a movement of citizens from the civil rights, business and education communities could come together to preserve and expand college opportunity by informing and influencing state policy and college practices that put students first.

The Campaign has played a critical role in elevating voices and raising critical issues through public awareness efforts, building alliances to advocate for students, and working with state-level leaders to enact crucial policies to support students.

Since 2004, the Campaign has succeeded in passing important legislation such as the Student Success Act of 2012, SB 1440 and AB 2302, creating clearer academic pathways to aid transfer from community colleges; SB 890 Early Commitment to College, increasing college awareness among middle school students and improving K–12 and higher education collaboration; and AB 668, ensuring that low-income students are accessing the financial aid available to them. It also has sponsored and disseminated over 20 reports, and facilitated the launch of the Early Commitment to College program with the California Department of Education across 119 diverse school districts in the state.

This Commission’s review on the impact of federal financial aid programs on minority student enrollment in our colleges and universities is critical. It is not an exaggeration to state that low-income and underrepresented students in higher education, rely extensively on the financial aid that they are able to access in order to decide whether or not they will go to college? What type of college they will attend? And whether or not they will be able to complete college? Given the growing premium placed on a college-educated worker in America, it is also not an exaggeration to say that access to a college degree is indeed a civil rights issue for our country.

Unfortunately, it’s becoming harder and harder for low-income students to access that college education. Today just 30 percent of students from a low-income background enroll in college compared to 80 percent of their high-income counterparts. At a time when the college wage premium (the difference between the average wages of college- and high school-educated workers) has increased substantially, this is even more disturbing. In a recent study “The Economy Goes to College” by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, authors Carnevale and Rose found that the college wage premium is 80%, which they note may be artificially high because we are under-producing college talent. In today’s economy, it is clear that having some level of postsecondary credential or degree is crucial to an individual’s ability to earn a middle-class salary.

National research has highlighted the challenges facing low-income, first-generation college students who are nearly four times more likely to leave their studies after their first year in college than students who came from educated and wealthier families. After six years, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students had earned bachelor’s degrees compared with 55 percent of their more advantaged peers. The reality is that many low-income and first-generation students face significant challenges in accessing and completing higher education. Students who fit this profile generally lack the social capital or access to resources that are typically available to students from higher-income or better-educated families and they must also work to finance their academic endeavors and to support themselves and oftentimes, their families.

In 1990, America ranked 1st in the world in terms of four-year degree attainment among 25-34 year olds, and now we rank 12th. If America is to once again become a leader in four-year degree attainment, low-income students and students of color must be given the same opportunities as their wealthy and White counterparts to succeed. Currently, Latinos represent 17 percent of America’s population, Blacks represent 13 percent and Asians represent 5 percent, in comparison non-Hispanic Whites represent 63 percent of America’s population. By 2044 the nation will be even more diverse than it is today as demographic projections show that non-Hispanic Whites will no longer be the nation’s largest ethnic group. Federal, state and college practices all must have the goal of improving college access and completion for students, regardless of race and income status, and identify proactive strategies for how to reverse the persistent inequities we see in higher education.

As the most populous state in the nation, California is also diverse and home to a significant proportion of underrepresented first-generation and low-income students. As California goes, so goes the nation. California continues to be the United States’ single largest economic engine and is currently the 7th largest economic power in the world based on gross domestic product (GDP). In 2011, California’s GDP was just under $2 trillion, or 13 percent of the country’s output, while having 12 percent of the country’s population and providing 12% of the nation’s tax revenue. However, that economic strength will diminish or increase depending on the state’s capacity to educate significantly more Californians and expand opportunity for its economically disadvantaged residents. Unfortunately, according to the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy, California ranks:

In many areas, California has served as a model for college access through its 9 world-renowned public research universities, a 23-campus state university system that is the largest in the nation, and an expansive community college system with 112 campuses serving over two million students. California also deserves to be commended as a leader in providing state financial aid to needy students – with over $1.8 billion dollars distributed to college students last year alone. But in many areas California is not a model and is in fact falling behind. It ranks last in the number of high school students it sends directly to a four year university, funneling close to two-thirds of its undergrad population into community colleges. And just one in two college students attending community colleges or the California State University system earn their degree, certificate or transfer within six years, statistics which are lower for underrepresented students.

Improving educational equity and reducing attainment gaps is not just a social and moral goal for the Golden State; it is an economic and democratic imperative. The Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce projects that by 2020, 67 percent of jobs in California will require some type of postsecondary education, with close to one in three (32 percent) requiring less than a bachelor’s degree.

Without marked improvements in educational attainment rates that are reflective of our growing diverse population especially that of Latinos, California is on track to have profound disparities in its workforce and significant effects on Californian’s collective quality-of-life. A lack of education directly correlates with child poverty, poor health choices, limited civic involvement, low voting rates and high incarceration rates. All of which when aggregated equate to larger social and financial challenges for the state.

Our own research on as part of a series of papers on the State of Higher Education in California (updated Latino and Black analysis released in April and May of this year – see attached infographics) raise some of the key challenges and opportunities we face in better educating more of our young people and closing persistent gaps between Latino and Black students and their White peers when it comes to college preparation, college going and college completion.

Latinos in Higher Education
Latinos are more likely to have a parent who does not have a four-year degree than any other racial/ethnic group. About half of Latinos enrolled in college have parents whose highest level of education was a high school diploma or less compared with 45 percent of Black and 28 percent of White students. Latinos are also more likely than the average student to attend college part-time. In one national study, three-fourths of all Latinos worked while pursuing their college degree. One in five Latino families in California is living in poverty (20 percent), a rate nearly two times that of White families (11 percent).

Our research has also found that while there is good news, more Latinos are graduating from high school and going to college than ever before, we still have a long way to go. In fact, only 32% of Latino California High School Graduates in 2014 were eligible to apply the University of California and the California State University system because they had completed the A-G courses that these universities require. This means that close to 70% of Latino High school graduates could not apply to a four-year university. It is no surprise to find that the majority of Latinos who do go to college, enroll at a community college (65 percent). And despite the growing number of Latinos going to college, they remain underrepresented in every system of higher education in California as the chart below shows.

2015 Latino undergrad body by sector

A substantial amount of research indicates that interventions that are designed to prepare students for college early in their academic trajectory and provide support along their college careers has a significant positive effect on student enrollment, persistence, and graduation. Guidance and support help students determine the universities they should apply to, show them how to navigate the application process and supply information about the various financial aid options that might be available to them. One study in particular found that high-achieving low-income students who received information about colleges and financial aid were actually more likely to enroll in selective universities than their more advantaged counterparts. Without this kind of support, the process can be too complex to navigate alone and many first-generation, low-income students fall through the cracks.

Even high-achieving Latino students overwhelmingly attend a two-year college—a phenomenon called under matching. In 2010, 46 percent of Latinos who graduated from California’s top-performing high schools (ranked in the top 10 percent of Academic Performance Index scores) enrolled in a California Community College—a rate higher than that of their White (27 percent), African-American (23 percent) and Asian (19 percent) counterparts. One study found that a critical determinant of under matching was students’ and parents’ lack of information about differences among various colleges and universities, the admissions process, and financial aid. As a result, students do not apply to more elite institutions for which they are eligible and from which they are more likely to graduate.

Once in college, major challenges persist for Latino students to walk across the graduation stage. Our research found that a significant number of college students are deemed not ready for college-level courses and are placed in remedial classes; transfer rates are disturbingly low; and six-year completion rates for Latinos are also low and gaps by race/ethnicity exist in the UC, CSU and community colleges that must be addressed. A few key findings include:

Blacks in Higher Education
Our research found that Black Californians have improved their educational outcomes over the last couple of decades. Black adults today are more likely to have a high school diploma and a college degree than in 1990 and Black students are also more likely to graduate from high school and college today than they were ten years ago. However, compared to the major four racial/ethnic groups in California, Blacks still experience significant opportunity gaps. For example, 23 percent of working-age Black adults in California have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 42 percent of White adults. Black adults are the most likely to have attended some college but left without earning a degree. Black youth overwhelmingly attend lower performing elementary through high schools characterized by lower than average test scores, inexperienced teachers, lower levels of resources and funding, and insufficient counselors. As a result, Black high school students are less likely than students from other racial/ethnic groups to graduate from high school and to do so having completed the sequence of A-G coursework that makes them eligible to apply to California’s public four-year universities. When they do arrive in college, Black students are most likely to be placed into pre-college level coursework, the least likely to graduate from college, and the most likely to enroll in for-profit colleges which have traditionally poor rates of student success and in some cases high costs and student debt levels. Some of the key findings include:

2015 Black educational attainment

In California, students of color are more likely to attend a four-year public university than a four-year private university. Our research indicates that in California nearly 15 percent of Black undergraduates and 18 percent of Latino undergraduates enrolled in a four-year public university during the fall of 2012 term. In contrast, only five percent of Black undergraduates and four percent of Latino undergraduates enrolled in a four-year private university during the fall of 2013 term.

If federal funding has a stated goal of helping colleges support diverse student populations, funding needs to be allocated in a way which better supports our nation’s four-year public university system and holds them accountable for improving educational outcomes for underrepresented and low income students.

The relationship between the federal financial aid formula and college enrollment for Blacks and Latino students is complex. Research suggests that Black and Latino students are more cost conscious when it comes to making key academic decisions than their White counterparts. Specifically, Blacks and Latino students are less likely than White students to enroll in college and are more likely to switch colleges based on tuition costs and financial aid awards. Thus, any changes which may increase a student’s expected family contribution could potentially have an effect on the enrollment of Black and Latino students.

In addition to the federal financial aid formula itself more should be done to make sure students fill out the FAFSA form. In 2013, 108,903 Pell eligible high school graduates from California did not complete the FAFSA form. Efforts to simplify the FAFSA form and/or make it mandatory for students to complete could insure that students have the resources they need to pay for their education.

One conclusion that can be taken from the high number of Pell eligible students not completing the FAFSA form is that knowledge is key in financial aid. Financial aid not only opens doors to college for low-income students it plays a vital role in their success when in college. Today a federal Pell grant only covers one-third of the cost of attendance at a four-year public university, the lowest in the history of the Pell program.

This is why federal, state, and college funding and policy priorities that support greater participation in college and graduation from college for underrepresented and low income students are key. Many of these policies are also good practice for all students. We can create an environment where the most American value of all—that everyone should have an equal opportunity to get ahead—is actually realized for a greater number of low income and underrepresented students across our nation.

This means that the following recommendations are critical:

At the Campaign we not only believe in shedding light on racial/ethnic disparities within California’s higher education system we also believe in shedding light on policy solutions and examples of what is already working in campuses across the state. We profile colleges and universities which are taking innovative approaches to improving access and success for underrepresented and low income students. For example, California State University at Fullerton has set aggressive goals for closing the equity gaps amongst students, redesigned hundreds of courses with high student fail rates, and established graduation success teams focused on using data to identify challenges and engaging solutions directly with students to improve the support services needed to help get more students to graduation. At San Diego State University two professors launched the Minority Male Community College Collaborative (M2C3) where they use research to identify appropriate strategies for improving outcomes for Black students in community colleges. M2C3 focuses on providing professional development for faculty and staff working that improves practices to better serve men of color and they use research and evaluations to facilitate the right solutions and capacity building for each college. More information on programs that are successful in improving educational outcomes can be found on our website at

California continues to undergo one of the largest demographic, cultural and economic transformations in history. And this transformation is a harbinger for the rest of the nation. How we address the challenges and incredible opportunities of the burgeoning diverse population will define our economy and civil society and those of the nation for decades to come.

The one factor that will largely determine the direction and velocity of that change is education. Education paves the way for progress. It ensures that we produce the best skilled workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow in a global economy. Those educated workers drive economic prosperity that in turn determines our quality of life. If we don’t get education right, we won’t succeed — not individually as students, workers and taxpayers, and not collectively as an economy, society and nation.

In a nation that is growing in its diversity, we can only grow and prosper when all ethnic groups share in educational and economic success. Whether a significantly greater number of low-income and underrepresented students fare better in our education system and have the opportunity to succeed in college, will determine our economic fate. The numbers make it clear. In conclusion, federal funding has played a vital role in making a higher education a reality for millions of students. We must work hard to ensure that obtaining a college degree remains an attainable goal for low-income students and students of color. There is perhaps nothing more American than making sure the promise of equal opportunity and success regardless of your income status is still true.

Thank you for your time.