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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Pipelines, Pathways, and Payoffs: Economic Challenges and Returns to Changing Demographics in California


For individuals, success and persistence in schooling has a huge economic impact on their lives. Educational attainment affects the kinds of employment job seekers can find, the amount of money they earn, the housing conditions and lifestyle they can afford, the level of savings they can accumulate for retirement, their risk for incarceration, and the likelihood that they will live in poverty or need to rely on transfer payment for basic needs. Perhaps less obviously, the state also has a strong stake in the educational attainment of its residents. One element of the state's economic stake is its financial balance, since the demand for incarceration and poverty-related state services declines with higher levels of educational attainment, while higher rates of per capita income permit the provision of a fixed set of state services at lower average rates of taxation.

Historically, California has experienced a "brain gain", as the flows of highly educated and skilled workers supplemented its own investments in developing educational opportunities for its residents. Long-running transitions toward migration flows in which lower levels of education are more heavily represented, in conjunction with projected demands for increasing numbers of well-educated and skilled labor in California, will require the state to either substantially improve educational success among its next generation of students or suffer from a shortfall of skilled workers.

Responding to the changing demographic features associated with shifts in migration and the emergence of a "Tidal Wave II" generation presents a challenge to providing broad-based educational success for Californians. First and second generation immigrants comprise a large fraction of California's K-12 students and the composition of California's students in term of immigrant generation differs substantially by ethnicity. Factors which place students at a disadvantage - poverty, single-parent households, low levels of parental education and linguistic isolation - also vary substantially by ethnicity and immigrant generation, and the effects of these disadvantages are apparent in rates of high school graduation, college-going, continuation and completion.

In order to reap the labor market rewards of education and meet expected demand for a well-educated labor force, improvements in continuation and completion rates as well as the situated integration of curriculum with the knowledge and practices of California's evolving industries are needed. To be broadly effective, education must be relevant to student aspirations and industry needs and provide a solid academic foundation for students to continue their educations in subsequent settings. Within these broad constraints, however, an overemphasis on a single discipline, instructional setting, style of learning, set of instructional supports or academic level is unlikely to address the varied needs of California's diverse student populations. Improvements in the K-12 setting are especially critical because enrollment is mandatory and broad, attrition is currently substantial, and the knowledge and skills acquired in this setting are fundamental to subsequent success in college and the workplace. Countering attrition is likely to entail the provision of supportive services tailored to the specific needs of students laboring under the disadvantages of poverty, limited English skills, and parental supports which may be restricted as a result of parents' own limited educations or single parenthood. Because students' own motivations are essential in their educational success, the integration of professional and technically-related training which provides clear context and relevance of the knowledge they learn in school is equally important, both in countering attrition and solidifying their new skills.

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