Course-taking Patterns and Preparation for Postsecondary Education in California's Public University Systems Among Minority Youth

Primary Researchers: Neal Finkelstein, Anthony Fong

Publication Date: January 2008

REL West researchers documented patterns of high school course-taking associated with preparation for college and entry into two-year California community colleges and four-year California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) institutions.

Because students from a variety of minority groups have been and continue to be underrepresented in California's colleges and universities, this study includes a subgroup analysis by ethnicity.

Research Questions

  • When do high school students take specific college-preparatory courses? Are there certain patterns of courses that students take simultaneously (e.g., mathematics, laboratory science, English) that predict college readiness?
  • Does A-G course eligibility vary by sociodemographic characteristics?
  • How is student performance in specific courses related to subsequent course-taking within a college-preparatory curriculum?
  • Does course completion vary by the overall performance of the school in which students are enrolled?
  • What patterns of high school courses differentiate students who matriculate to two- and four-year colleges?


Data for this study were collected with the Transcript Evaluation Service (TES), an integrated computer-based system, followed by human verification. The first panel of TES data — for the spring 2004/05 school year — included transcripts from 31 schools, yielding 70,543 transcripts.

To have a sample of observations with full high school coursework information, the sample was restricted to 12th graders for both the 2003/04 and 2004/05 school years. The transcripts for these 12th graders in the final dataset include information on 9th-, 10th-, 11th-, and 12th-grade courses, course grades, and the year and semester in which students took the courses. The transcripts also include the ethnicity and gender of each student.

TES data were supplemented with school-level data reported by the California Department of Education, which publishes annual School Accountability Report Cards that provide demographic, academic, and staffing information for all schools in California.

Data from TES was analyzed to examine course-taking patterns over students' high school careers. REL West researchers descriptively showed how students progressed through high school using histograms, kernel density plots, line graphs, scatterplots, and tables of cross-tabulations.


Study findings include the following:

  • Completing one year of college-preparatory English and mathematics in 9th grade is an enormous challenge for many students.
  • By the end of high school, less than a quarter of the students in the sample had fulfilled both subject and GPA requirements for CSU and UC admissions.
  • Disaggregating by student ethnicity yields large differences in education attainment.
  • For students with similar GPAs after the first semester of high school, future college readiness is correlated with the school they attend.
  • An early and complete sequence of courses raises a student's chance of attending a four-year California public college over a two-year California community college after high school.


The study's findings demonstrate a consistent pattern: students who complete college-preparatory courses in 9th grade begin a clear trajectory that continues throughout high school. Compared with students who do not take key college preparatory courses in 9th grade, students who do take these courses have a higher probability of meeting the complete set of CSU and UC course requirements.

Students who fall off the college-preparatory track early in high school tend to move ever further from a complete college-preparatory program as they progress through high school. These patterns were examined by ethnicity and the overall performance of the school that a student attends.

The findings translate into a clear message for policymakers, students, and parents: the high school program for college preparation begins in 9th grade, and making up missed courses and academic content is likely to be difficult for students who put off college-preparatory work until later in their high school career. These findings suggest that early intervention is critical.

  • Published: January 2008
  • Research Type: Issues & Answers
  • Methodologies: Descriptive
  • Contact info:
    Neal Finkelstein 415.615.3171

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