County found low on higher education

Fewer than 10 percent of residents have a degree, survey finds

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 10, 2013 

— Fewer than 10 percent of the people in Merced County have earned higher education degrees, according to data from the U.S. Census' American Community Survey.

Out of the county's 143,187 population of people who are 25 years and older, an estimated 25.1 percent are high school graduates or the equivalent, while 6.9 percent have an associate's degree, according to recently released survey data on educational attainment.

Out of that same population group, only 8.1 percent have a bachelor's degree and only a 4.2 percent have a graduate or professional degree, according to the 2012 data.

Scott Scambray, superintendent for the Merced Union High School District, said one factor in the low higher education attainment in the region could be that many jobs in the area don't require people to have college degrees. "We have a lot of our students go on to college, but because the jobs aren't here, they move somewhere else," he said.

A similar situation is mirrored in other places where agriculture dominates the area, such as Imperial Valley in Southern California, said Stan Thurston, mayor of Merced.

Bringing more skilled jobs to the area would help change the situation, Scambray added. "We have to break the mold and entice companies to relocate here," he said. "If the jobs are here, they do want to stay."

But the situation is complex. Scambray said companies say the area doesn't have an educated work force, but the educated workforce won't stay or move here if there are no jobs.

Thurston agreed. "It's going to be the college's magnet that will bring both to this area, eventually, in the long-term," he said. "We know that in time, with UC Merced here, that is going to change, because as the university grows, high-tech companies will relocate to the Merced area to support the university."

There are high-tech companies in the area already, but it's not enough to make a notable difference, Thurston said.

Jorge Aguilar, associate vice chancellor for educational community partnerships at UC Merced, said officials certainly hope to see an improvement in the numbers of educational attainment.

Officials believe those numbers will gradually increase. Aguilar said that before UC Merced was established, students didn't have access to pursue a higher education "in their own backyard."

"Prior to the UC, those students who wanted a UC education would have left the Valley," he said. "I think that's a critical point to make."

UC Merced's student enrollment is 5,760, and a third of those students are from the Central Valley, Aguilar said.

Aguilar believes job opportunities will be a huge factor in keeping those students in the region once they achieve their higher education goals. "I think it will be dependent on how they feel about their future opportunities in the Valley," he said.

On the other hand, schools are doing their job to help keep students in school and eventually for them to pursue a higher education.

Most high schools in the Merced Union High School District boosted their graduation rates between 2010 and 2011, according to the data from the California Department of Education released last year.

The Merced Union High School District had an 85.9 percent graduation rate in 2010-11, according to data from the district. The statewide average was 76.3 percent.

Scambray said the latest graduation rates are encouraging because they are going up. The district is about 9 percentage points higher than the rest of the state, he said.

"But at the same time we are not satisfied," he said, adding that officials' goal is to have an 100 percent graduation rate.

Students attendance and involvement play a critical role in decreasing the dropout rate, he said. "They can't pass a class unless they come to school," he said.

District officials are working hard to continue to increase the graduation rates at all of its high schools. Each high school might unfold the programs a little different, but essentially they are all doing the same, Scambray said.

Costa Aguilar, principal at Golden Valley High School, said the school this year implemented an intervention model that's embedded within the school day.

Every freshmen participates in a 30-minute class four days a week to ensure they are getting the appropriate study, social and academic skills they need to succeed, Aguilar said. Sophomores, juniors and seniors receive a 30-minute tutorial or study hall four days a week where they can catch up on work.

Previously, students had to come before or after school if they needed assistance with school work, but now they have no other choice since the time is built in to the school day, Aguilar said.

School officials saw a 60 percent reduction in student failure this first semester in comparison to last year, he said. But officials will really see how the graduation rates increase when this year's freshmen class graduates.

The more educated someone is, the higher income that person will take home.

Median earnings for someone in the county with a high school diploma or equivalent is estimated to be around $26,834, while estimated median earnings for someone with some college classes or an associate degree are around $30,590, according to the earnings by education level data from the American Community Survey.

The estimated median earnings for someone with a bachelor's degree is around $50,846 and $66,965 for those with a graduate or professional degree.

Jorge Aguilar said the Center for Educational Partnerships works with high school students across the valley to help them advance their educational careers.

"We make sure they are taking the right courses, test and how to navigate through the (college) admission process," he said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482, or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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