Despite the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the demand for a college education is as high as ever. In fact, in July the University of California (UC) announced a record-high number of admissions for the current school year. While increases in state funding and initiatives to improve access have contributed to enrollment growth at UC and California State University (CSU), large disparities in college access remain—limiting upward mobility and exacerbating the state’s economic divide.
In California – even with recent increases – enrollment in four-year institutions among recent high school graduates remains among the lowest in the nation. While about 70% of California’s high school graduates enroll in college within 12 months, only 7% attend a UC and only 13% attend a CSU; 7% enroll out of state and 3% enroll in an in-state private college. The remaining 40% attend a community college, a share that ranks fourth in the country. California’s community college (CCC) system is a critical entry point to higher education, especially for low-income, Latino, and African American students. However, disparities in transfer-level courses often hamper students’ efforts to reach their educational goals.
The interactive below shows that college-going rates vary widely across school districts. Overall, college enrollment is much higher among high school graduates from districts in coastal areas, mirroring geographic disparities in college readiness. CCC enrollment is relatively high throughout much of the state, whereas CSU enrollment is higher in inland areas such as Sacramento, Stanislaus, and Fresno Counties, and UC enrollment is largest in the Bay Area and Southern California. Out-of-state enrollment tends to be concentrated in districts along the coast and in districts that border neighboring states, while enrollment in private in-state colleges is more common in large suburban districts.
College-going rates also vary greatly by race and ethnicity. Statewide, Native American (54%), Latino (63%), Pacific Islander (64%), and Black (65%) high school graduates are much less likely to enroll in college within 12 months than their Asian (91%), Filipino (77%), and white (76%) peers. Disparities are starkest for UC enrollment: 26% of recent Asian high school graduates go to UC, compared to 4% of their Black, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander peers.
Even in districts with high overall college-going rates, large racial disparities persist. UC enrollment rates among Asian and Filipino high school graduates are very high in almost all districts (where there are sufficient students to measure such outcomes). District-level enrollment among white students mostly aligns with overall college-going rates, with the Bay Area and Southern California exhibiting higher UC enrollment. In contrast, UC enrollment among Black and Latino students is low in almost all school districts.
Addressing disparities in high school could help level the playing field. While high school graduation rates are high throughout the state, completion of the college preparatory requirements for CSU and UC, known as A–G courses, varies greatly across school districts, racial/ethnic groups, and income brackets. Additionally, research suggests more information about college admissions criteria could improve educational opportunities for low-income high school students.
Continuing efforts to improve college access will also be necessary. One option is reforming UC and CSU admissions criteria to elevate the importance of low-income status—this could reduce the effect of structural inequities that limit educational opportunities. UC’s recent decision to eliminate the use of SAT and ACT scores in admissions could have a similar effect. Another option would be a dual admission program for community college students, providing a seamless transfer to UC or CSU after completion of lower-division coursework. Building on the success of the Associate Degree for Transfer (ADT) program, such an initiative would offer admission to a four-year institution at the time students enroll at a community college, as opposed to after an associate degree is earned. Even with these changes, however, additional resources and incentives from the state will be needed to admit more low-income students at a time when many campuses are facing capacity constraints. Collaboration between the state’s leaders and its higher education institutions is necessary in order to effectively eliminate these structural barriers.