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Testimony: Closing California’s Workforce Skills Gap

Hans Johnson May 18, 2016

Hans Johnson, director of the PPIC Higher Education Center and PPIC senior fellow, testified before the Assembly Budget Subcommittee Number 2 on Education Finance in Sacramento yesterday (May 17, 2016). Here are his prepared remarks.


The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) projects that between now and 2030 California will fall 1.1 million bachelor’s degrees short of workforce demand.1 Closing this gap will require substantial improvements in access to four-year colleges, transfer rates from community colleges, and completion rates among students who enroll in college. In this testimony, PPIC identifies specific goals for access, transfer, and completion at California’s public colleges and universities, and increases in private colleges that together could close the workforce skills gap.

Our work on this issue emphasizes that closing the workforce skills gap will require strong improvements in college enrollment and completion among underrepresented groups, including low-income students, first-generation college students, Latinos, and African Americans. California cannot succeed economically unless gaps in educational attainment are eliminated or at least substantially reduced. A forthcoming report from PPIC will show how new goals for access, completion, and transfer will improve equity in California.

In our baseline scenario, which is based on current practices and procedures, California’s public and private higher education institutions will produce 3.1 million bachelor’s degrees between 2015–16 and 2029–30. This baseline scenario assumes that the state’s college enrollment rates, completion rates, and transfer rates will remain at current levels.

Our “closing-the-gap” scenario charts a course to producing 4.2 million bachelor’s degrees over the next 15 years. In this scenario, the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2029–30 would be 60 percent higher than in the baseline scenario—and it would be 72 percent higher than the number of degrees awarded in 2014–15. Such dramatic increases are not entirely without precedent. Between 2002–03 and 2014–15, the annual number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by California’s public and private universities increased almost 50 percent. Gains in earlier periods were even more impressive. For example, between 1964–65 and 1979–80 the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded at CSU increased 95 percent.

In the recent past, growth in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded at UC and CSU was fueled primarily by increases in the number of students who enrolled in college and secondarily by increases in completion rates. Even though the share of high school graduates entering UC and CSU did not change appreciably, enrollment increased as the number of high school graduates grew.

The California Department of Finance projects that the number of high school graduates will not change substantially over the next fifteen years. This means that increasing the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded will require changes in three key thresholds in the education pipeline from high school to college to degree.

  • First, the share of recent high school graduates eligible for and enrolling in four-year colleges will need to increase.
  • Second, persistence and completion rates for students enrolled in college must increase.
  • Third, the number of students who transfer from community colleges to four-year colleges (or return to college) must increase.

The exact mix of improvements in these three areas is not set in stone. Our closing-the-gap scenario is based on empirical trends, and our current focus is on public institutions. We assume that private colleges will keep pace with those in the public sector, continuing to produce about a third of all bachelor’s degrees awarded each year. Also, we have not incorporated applied bachelor’s degrees awarded by the state’s community colleges, as those numbers are still very small. This means that UC and CSU together would need to produce an additional 730,000 bachelor’s degrees over this period and private colleges would need to produce an additional 340,000 bachelor’s degrees (a total of 1.1 million) to fully close the degree gap by 2030. Private nonprofit colleges would account for the vast majority of the additional degrees awarded by the private sector.

Our initial closing-the-gap scenario sets the following targets for the state’s public colleges and universities:

  • Eligibility will increase 5 percentage points over current levels at UC (the top 17.5 percent of high school graduates will be eligible for UC, up from the 12.5 percent share set by California’s Master Plan for Higher Education) and 6.7 percentage points at CSU (the top 40 percent will be eligible for CSU, up from the top third). These new eligibility levels will be phased in over an eight-year period.
  • The number of transfer students will increase 35 percent over baseline levels. These increases will be phased in over a five-year period.
  • Completion rates will increase 9 percentage points at UC and 17 percentage points at CSU. At UC, completion rates for students who enroll as freshmen will increase incrementally from 83 percent in 2016 to 92 percent by 2026. Completion rates for freshmen at CSU will increase incrementally from 57 percent in 2016 to 74 percent by 2030. There will be similar increases in completion rates for transfer students at both institutions.

CSU will account for most of the increase in degrees awarded over the entire projection period—it will award 481,000 additional degrees, compared to UC’s increase of 251,000. This is both because CSU is a larger institution, enrolling many more students than UC, and because CSU has much more room for improvement in graduation rates. Private nonprofit colleges would also play an important role, adding an additional 206,000 degrees. Other additional sources, such as private for-profit colleges, online degree programs, and bachelor’s degrees awarded by community colleges, will also need to play a role (see Table 1).

Most of the projected increase in degrees awarded at CSU comes from improvements in completion, while increased eligibility accounts for almost half of UC’s increase. Increased transfer rates will also be necessary to close the gap (see Table 2).

Of course, this is just one scenario for closing the workforce skills gap (our interactive model is available upon request). In the future, we expect to develop alternative closing-the-gap scenarios; we will also examine the potential impact of shortening the time it takes students to get their degrees. Additional work should assess the role that private institutions might play. Other scenarios might involve different assumptions and targets. But, however it is accomplished, closing the gap will lead to better economic outcomes for all Californians, increased state revenues, and reduced social service demands.

1. Hans Johnson, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, and Sarah Bohn, Will California Run Out of College Graduates? (PPIC, 2015).
Figure note (middle): “Other” includes online degrees, private for-profit degrees, and applied bachelor’s degrees awarded by the community colleges.
Photo credit: Public Affairs/Sacramento State

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