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Blog Post · May 14, 2024

Does Transfer Reduce Regional Enrollment Gaps at CSU and UC?

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California’s public universities rank among the top at boosting economic mobility yet large regional differences in access persist. Among first-time freshmen at CSU and UC, California students from regions with larger Latino and Black populations and regions with lower incomes are underrepresented. To earn a bachelor’s degree, which remains a strong investment, these students instead rely on the transfer pathway from community colleges. But does transfer counteract disparities in freshmen enrollment at the state’s public four-year campuses? At CSU, this seems to be the case; at UC, the role of transfer as an offset is less clear.

To some degree, regional disparities in freshmen enrollment reflect factors beyond geography. For example, the Bay Area is overrepresented among UC freshmen compared to the California high school population, in part because this region is home to high shares of Asian high schoolers and higher-income students—groups that see strong representation at UC.

Still, a regional perspective is critical. Take Los Angeles County, the Inland Empire, and the San Joaquin Valley. All three have similar demographics—high shares of Latino and lower-income students. But only Los Angeles County is well represented among CSU and UC freshmen, while the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley are underrepresented.

Low application rates are driving these gaps, rather than admissions or yield rates (the share of admitted students who enroll). Despite relatively high admissions rates, the San Joaquin Valley represents only 7.4% of UC freshmen enrollees—but it’s home to 14.5% of high school seniors. This gap persists because the region accounts for only 7.3% of UC freshmen applicants. Statewide, even if admissions and yield rates were equal across regions, we would still see large disparities in enrollment.

While high school students from certain regions may not apply for many reasons, college readiness is a likely culprit. Completion of mandatory college preparatory courses, known as A–G courses, is low statewide. In regions with higher shares of Black, Latino, and low-income students, college preparation tends to be much lower. Students may have less access to college preparatory courses and supports, reducing their likelihood of meeting the eligibility requirements to attend the state’s four-year universities.

Students from underrepresented regions may also be less likely to want to earn a bachelor’s degree. However, while attending community college is more common in regions such as the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley, students there are more likely to report a goal of earning a degree and/or transferring than students in other regions.

In practice, the likelihood of transferring is quite low and varies across community college districts. Transfers to CSU, however, tend to reflect the California community college population, which suggests that the transfer path does counteract disparities in CSU freshmen enrollment. Transfers at UC look a lot like UC freshmen enrollees—suggesting that transfer has yet to counteract gaps in UC freshmen enrollment.

Again, low application rates seem to be the key issue at UC. Prospective freshmen and transfer students from underrepresented regions and groups are not applying to UC at proportional rates.

These differences between CSU and UC raise important questions for policy. Are students not applying to UC because they are not prepared, or are other factors influencing their decisions? What role do campus proximity, financial constraints, and perceived access play? Identifying and addressing these obstacles is critical to fulfilling the state’s higher education mission to serve all students and meeting its goals to grow enrollment and improve student success.

Efforts such as CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025 and UC’s 2030 goals show promise toward narrowing educational attainment gaps among underrepresented students. Enrollment rates must increase for such efforts to truly succeed, and, considering the state’s reliance on community colleges to serve underrepresented students, transfer must play a bigger role in narrowing enrollment gaps. With these goals in mind, the state needs to devote more work to improving transfer opportunities for students from all regions.


Access California Community Colleges California State University Completion enrollment Equity geography of educational opportunities Higher Education Poverty & Inequality racial disparities transfer University of California