Long-term demographic changes—possibly exacerbated by the pandemic—have made it challenging for many US colleges to attract students over the past several years. Small private colleges with less-selective admissions are particularly vulnerable to falling demand, but public universities have also experienced enrollment declines. California’s public universities have mostly bucked this trend, largely because the state’s population is relatively youthful and the number of Californians graduating from high school has continued to grow. But the pandemic, recent population declines, and projections of minimal growth in high school grads all raise questions about the future.
We looked at recent trends in freshmen applications, admission, and enrollment at the state’s large public university systems: the 23-campus California State University system (CSU) and the 9 University of California (UC) campuses that enroll undergraduate students. These systems educate the vast majority of California’s four-year undergraduates.
UC has continued to see increases in first-time freshman applications from California residents (except for a small decline from 2018 to 2020) reaching a record in fall 2022, and remaining at that level for fall 2023 applicants. However, the number of Californians enrolling for the first time has been flat for seven years, at just under 40,000.
Encouragingly, enrollment among students from racial/ethnic groups that have been historically underrepresented at UC has grown from 33% in 2014 to 36% in 2021, with Latino enrollees increasing from 10,166 to 13,065 and Black enrollees increasing from 1,516 to 2,274. All nine UC campuses have seen increases in applications and relatively stable enrollment in the past few years.
CSU has seen moderate declines in applications, but enrollment has held steady. After falling 15% from fall 2016 to fall 2021, applications increased 7% in the past year (applications for fall 2023 are not yet available). The share of admitted students has increased from 75% of applicants in fall 2016 to 94% in fall 2022. Enrollment of first-time first-year students from California has remained around 60,000 per year over the past eight years. Latinos have grown from 48% to 57% of first-time CSU freshmen, but CSU has seen a small drop in enrollment among Black students.
UC and CSU enrollment is in relatively good shape, compared to trends at other state universities. For example, regional public universities in Michigan have seen a 16% decline in new first-time students over the past few years, and the State University of New York has seen a 12% decline. However, projections of little or no growth in the number of California’s high school graduates and declines in community college enrollment raise concerns about the state’s ability to produce enough college graduates to meet workforce demand and drive economic mobility.
There are ways to keep increasing the number of four-year degrees. If college preparatory course completion continues to improve among California’s high school students, the pool of recent graduates eligible for UC and CSU should continue to grow, and this could increase the share of graduates enrolling in college. The state can also boost the number of bachelor’s degrees by improving transfer rates from community colleges to four-year institutions. We will take a closer look at transfer admission trends in an upcoming blog post.