Diversity and Democracy

Using Transcript Data and Online Courses to Prepare More Students for College

Founded in 1868 as a public land-grant institution, the University of California (UC) seeks to ensure that as many students as possible can pursue an education at one of our ten campuses, including students from low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented backgrounds. Currently, 42 percent of UC students receive Pell Grants, and the same percentage are first-generation college students. Five UC campuses have now been designated as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), with more than 25 percent Latinx enrollment, making UC a predominantly HSI university system.

Serving low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students means expanding educational opportunities for these students much earlier than college and guiding them on their journey to a UC education. These efforts demonstrate UC’s commitment to students’ success while they are still enrolled in secondary schools. In addition to a variety of successful college preparation outreach programs, UC has implemented large-scale strategies to ensure that as many students as possible prepare for a UC education. Two interventions have proved to be essential: transcript evaluation and online courses.

The Challenge

Prospective undergraduate students must take many steps to get to UC. They must take the appropriate courses and exams, earn the required grade point average (GPA), and often exceed the minimum admission requirements. They must apply to the university and, if admitted, accept the offer. To engage in these actions, they must perceive the university as accessible and affordable. All students—particularly first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students—benefit from adult guides who can help them navigate the college preparation journey.

California public schools face student-to-counselor ratios of nearly 760 to 1, which makes equitable access to consistent, high-quality college advising a challenge. Many students therefore do not complete key college preparatory courses. UC and the California State University (CSU) systems require applicants to complete A–G subject requirements in the areas of history/social science (A); English (B); mathematics (C); laboratory science (D); languages other than English (E); visual and performing arts (F); and college-preparatory electives (G). Courses used to satisfy the A–G subject requirements must be approved by UC and must appear on the A–G course list for the student’s school, district, or online program.

To give students the information and support they need to apply to college, UC provides precollege academic preparation outreach—including college advising, entrance exam preparation, academic enrichment in STEM and other academic disciplines, and informational services—to more than one hundred thousand K–12 and community college students and their families, particularly those from underrepresented communities or from schools in low-income neighborhoods. By and large, these services pay off: participants in the outreach programs offered across all UC campuses apply to and enroll at UC at higher rates than other California high school graduates.

As successful as these programs are, they are limited by personnel capacity and funding. Many more students than those reached by these programs lack access to the high school courses they need to achieve eligibility for the UC and CSU systems. Too many students from low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented backgrounds fall off the college preparation pathway too early in their high school careers. In addition, these students are frequently unaware that they possess the academic skills to attend a selective college or university. As a result, they may not take the necessary steps to apply to a college that matches their interests and abilities.

Given these circumstances—inadequate access to high-quality counseling, limitations on the ability to scale outreach programs, and disproportionate numbers of low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students not completing a full sequence of A–G courses—we set out to implement large-scale strategies that directly addressed A–G course access, progress, and completion. What could UC do to improve students’ awareness of their course-taking patterns, address A–G course availability in schools, and guide students to additional resources to help them prepare for college? We have found that transcript evaluation and online courses are crucial in scaling our college preparation outreach efforts.

Transcript Evaluation Service

The UC Office of the President developed the Transcript Evaluation Service (TES) in 2004 to inform individual students of their progress in achieving eligibility for UC and CSU, raise their awareness of college opportunities, and guide them toward resources available to help them achieve their college goals. Schools that partner with UC for transcript evaluation receive student-, school-, and district-level reports that are based on individual transcript evaluations for all enrolled students in ninth to twelfth grades.

In 2017–18, TES generated customized progress reports for more than three hundred thousand California students in over one hundred schools. Each student report details courses completed, courses in progress, and courses that should be taken to successfully complete the full sequence of college preparatory courses. Combined with a GPA calculation, a TES report provides a complete summary of where a student stands and what a student needs to do to become fully eligible for UC or CSU. School administrators, guidance counselors, and teachers can receive these transcript evaluations, enabling them to identify students who are close to meeting the UC or CSU admission requirements but who, without intervention, may fall short of eligibility. Administrators and staff can then encourage these students to enroll in online programs to complete A–G courses that may not otherwise be available at their schools. They can also point students toward UC college access programs to receive assistance with academic advising, study skills, test preparation, financial aid, and college applications.

The school-level report details a school’s overall progress in A–G access and completion and identifies courses that enroll large numbers of students and that, with some curricular revisions, could become college preparatory courses recognized by UC and CSU. UC professional staff engage with schools to help them develop these courses and/or pursue online course options.

The TES system provides students with better information about their progress and helps schools better understand how they are helping students achieve college preparation goals. A formative analysis found that schools that implemented TES for two years improved CSU- and UC-eligibility rates by up to 30 percent. By Year 5, TES schools, on average, experienced a 41 percent increase in graduates applying to UC compared with their base year.

Online Courses

In 2013, to further support student access to A–G courses, UC created UC Scout. This full-service online learning platform offers interactive online courses for middle and high school students, including low-income and first-generation students and English language learners. The university develops UC Scout courses—including Advanced Placement (AP), honors, and credit recovery courses—in close consultation with UC faculty. UC also certifies that the courses meet A–G requirements.

Schools can use the UC Scout platform and materials to offer UC-accredited and approved classes they might not otherwise have the resources to provide. Basic and Plus courses—in which individual schools provide the teacher and UC Scout provides materials—are offered for free to California public school teachers and students. In Premium and On Demand courses, UC Scout provides the teacher for a low cost. In 2016–17, 259 California schools used UC Scout courses to supplement their A–G course offerings. UC Scout also supported students from charter schools, independent study programs, juvenile justice facilities, adult education centers, and community colleges.

Expanding Our Reach

University-led college preparation efforts like those at UC provide credibility and authority that K–12 information systems and vendors cannot. In other words, when UC tells students what they can do to achieve their college goals, they do it. Raising awareness in this manner, as well as providing opportunities for students to complete needed courses online if the courses are not available in their schools, has allowed UC to support thousands of students that we could not reach through college preparation programs alone. As a result, many more low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented California students are achieving their college goals and becoming UC students.

Editor’s note: To learn more about this topic, check out “Ventura beyond the Campus: Outreach Propels CSU–Channel Islands’ Work to Promote a College-Going Community” in Liberal Education (Winter 2019, Vol. 105, No. 1).


Yvette Gullatt is Vice Provost for Diversity and Engagement and Chief Outreach Officer at the University of California.

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