By Nanette Asimov
Chronicle Staff Writer
As she considered what to do after graduating from high school in 2002, Kelli Hubbard of Oakland listened to the most persuasive voices: her peers and her television set.
The TV ad for a private culinary academy was tempting. But getting a paycheck like her friends won out, and Hubbard took a job in a grocery store.
Missing was any clear voice saying, "Kelli, come to college. You can do it."
It's a scenario that plays out across California for millions of students like Hubbard, whose schools fail to prepare them for college work, whose local community colleges have weak ties to their high school, and who - if they make it to community college - receive little guidance toward a bachelor's degree.
Solutions are possible despite the economic crisis, concludes the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, which released three research papers Tuesday that paint a devastating but somewhat hopeful picture of the state of higher education for students of color such as Hubbard.
"California is dead last in terms of four-year college completion - even though it's a rich state that needs college graduates," said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project and co-author of one report examining a handful of colleges that succeed in helping students of color transfer to four-year universities.
Proposals range from the radical - lifting enrollment caps at public universities and letting community colleges award bachelor's degrees - to proven approaches, such as investing in armies of counselors.
"We found that counseling is absolutely critical to students at risk," said Orfield, whose report notes that at successful colleges, "counselors provide information about transfer to students without waiting to be asked."
Colleges that reached out most aggressively to high school students also had the best transfer rates to four-year universities, said Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project with Orfield and co-author with him of the report "Building Pathways to Transfer."
For Hubbard, 27, better counseling in high school and more contact with colleges might have changed her life.
"I think I would be already in my profession, already established, mastering my craft," said Hubbard, who now aspires to be a counselor herself, helping middle school students.
Unhappy with low-paying jobs, Hubbard enrolled at the College of Alameda in 2008, at age 24. She is heading to Cal State East Bay next fall.
"As an African American woman and single mother, I'm beating the odds," Hubbard said.
One paper takes a different tack, blaming low college completion on California's vaunted Master Plan for Higher Education. The document limits access to the University of California to the top eighth of high school graduates, and California State University to the top third.
The caps should be lifted, argue Saul Geiser of UC Berkeley and former UC President Richard Atkinson in their paper, "Beyond the Master Plan: The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California."
To handle all the new students, Geiser and Atkinson propose letting community colleges award bachelor's degrees. Doing so would eliminate the need for traditional transfers, they write.
But the idea has met with some disapproval.
Community college faculty have expressed fear that they would be barred from working without a doctorate. A bill by Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego, to offer bachelor's degrees at community colleges failed last year.
Even Hubbard demurred, offering the unlikely view that there is something precious about restricting access to a four-year degree.
"It's like money," she said. "The more you print it, the less value it is."