High school diplomas represent the culmination of more than a decade of education and provide the foundation for future earning potential.

Unfortunately, many local young adults in San Diego do not have a diploma.

According to the San Diego Economic Equity Report released by San Diego Foundation and produced in partnership with the San Diego Regional Policy & Innovation Center, 4,222 19- and 20-year-olds in San Diego County still need a high school diploma.

According to the County of San Diego Equity Indicators Report, in 2021, American workers aged 25 and older with a high school diploma earned 29% higher median usual weekly earnings than workers without one. A high school diploma is necessary for enrollment at most colleges; workers with a bachelor’s degree had median usual weekly earnings 65% higher than those with a high school diploma in 2021.

Disparities Abound

San Diego leads the state with a high school graduation rate of 85% and a low high school dropout rate of 7%. The County of San Diego Equity Indicators Report shows that in San Diego County in 2021, 94.2% of 19- and 20-year-olds had completed grade 12 or higher. However, disparities were evident for race/ethnicity, sex, disability status, and immigrant status.

The following groups of 19- and 20-year-olds had lower graduation rates compared to the county overall in 2021:

  • 3% of Hispanic or Latino/a
  • 6% of Black or African American
  • 2% of male
  • 4% of disabled
  • 0% of immigrants

Additionally, the disaggregated data for four specific student groups – English language learners, students experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities and foster youth – suggest that students who identify in one or more of these groups are dropping out at much higher rates and graduating at lower rates.

According to the California Department of Education, foster youth have the county’s highest dropout (22%) and lowest graduation rates (55%), followed closely by students experiencing homelessness with a 19% dropout rate and a 65% high school graduation rate.

College Preparedness

The data for these priority student groups (English language learners, students experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities, and foster youth) reveals that they are the furthest from accessing post-secondary education, such as enrolling in technical training, community colleges or universities.

For all students in San Diego County:

  • 64% will enter post-secondary education right after high school.
  • 58% of students in San Diego will complete their A-G requirements in high school, making them eligible for admission to the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) systems.

California Department of Education data shows that local foster youth are not graduating from high school with eligibility to attend state public universities and youth experiencing homelessness are least likely to enroll in higher education.

Compared to their peers, students from these groups are not prepared to start or succeed in post-secondary education upon high school graduation. This perpetuates less access to careers that provide family-sustaining wages.

College Support for Students

In California’s public college and universities, the level of support available for the priority student groups does not meet the level of need they encounter when they step foot on campus. For example:

  • In California, nearly 20% of students in postsecondary education are students with disabilities
  • Students with disabilities often struggle to access the rights guaranteed to them in the higher education system. The UC system has an average of one disability specialist for every 500-1,000 students. Due to the minimal level of support, this student group has a lower sense of belonging on campus than their able-bodied peers.
  • Homelessness in higher education has been a longstanding issue. In California, 1 in 5 community college students, 1 in 10 CSU students, and 1 in 25 UC students will experience homelessness during their time in postsecondary education.
  • In California, foster youth have a bachelor’s degree completion rate of 3.6%. Additionally, only 1 in 8 English language learners who start in postsecondary education will complete their degrees.

These student groups need help to complete degrees at the rate of their peers. In comparison, the national completion rate for a bachelor’s degree is around 62%. Unfortunately, these student groups lack a substantive support system and struggle to complete their degrees because of this.

Finding Solutions

While the data is stark for these student groups, there is support in the community to help.

Since 2017, the SDF Community Scholars Initiative (CSI) has supported 574 first-generation college students from low-income families and underrepresented communities with over $1.6 million in scholarships. CSI has also supported community-based partners with over $1.8 million in grants to support vital college readiness programs and over $142,000 for emergency assistance and additional scholarships to the students these programs support. To date, 66% of CSI-supported students have graduated from college or are on track to graduate from their respective pathways.

In 2023, SDF re-evaluated the CSI program to better meet the current needs of the region. To increase educational equity in the region, SDF now focuses on student populations facing the greatest barriers to completion:

  • English language learners
  • Students experiencing homelessness
  • Students with disabilities
  • Foster youth

Through a more intentional approach to equitable college access and success, CSI will continue its work with students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups and low-income backgrounds. Data shows that Native American, Black and Latino/a students are more likely to fall within one or multiple of the student groups identified above.

Additionally, data from California Department of Education shows that most students who identify with one of more of these groups come from low-income backgrounds.

Through a commitment to English-language learners, students experiencing homelessness, students with disabilities, and foster youth, SDF recognizes the intersections students face and will double-down on its commitment to racial and economic equity in education.

Learn more about the SDF Community Scholars Initiative.