The COVID-19 pandemic magnified challenges for California’s community colleges, and enrollment among transfer-intending students declined sharply. Transferring to a four-year college has long been critical to improving economic mobility among underrepresented student groups—but the actual likelihood of transferring is quite low and varies widely across the state. Our research shows that where students attend community college may significantly affect their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree. Addressing regional disparities in transfer will be key to meeting the state’s and the community college system’s goals of eliminating equity gaps and increasing degree attainment, especially given pandemic-era disruptions.
There are many reasons why community college students who want to transfer might be less likely to do so in some parts of the state. For some students, options for nearby four-year colleges may be limited, and financial barriers and insufficient aid can make it hard to move away from home. Moreover, uneven outreach may also constrain students’ awareness of potential transfer destinations.
Most students tend to apply to and enroll in campuses that are closer to them. For individual University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) campuses, transfer applicants are disproportionately likely to come from within the campus region.
However, when we examine the overall regional distribution of UC and CSU transfers, we find that students in the Bay Area and Los Angeles dominate transfer enrollment. Meanwhile, shares of transfers from some other regions—including the Inland Empire, San Joaquin Valley, and the Sacramento area—lag behind their shares of the community college population.
Regional disparities in transfer are most striking at UC, especially for the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley—regions with historically low educational attainment. While close to 11% of community college students attend school in these regions, only 7% (Inland Empire) and 3% (San Joaquin Valley) of all students who transfer to UC come from them. In contrast, transfers from the Bay Area are greatly overrepresented: about 17% of community college students are in the Bay Area, but 29% of UC transfers come from this region.
At CSU, transfer enrollment more closely matches the regional distribution of the state’s community college population. There are many more CSU campuses than UC campuses across the state, meaning that students in all regions have relatively close access to a CSU campus.
Applications, rather than admissions, appear to drive these patterns at UC. Disproportionately low enrollment among transfer students from the Inland Empire and San Joaquin Valley stems primarily from a lower share of applications from those regions. UC Riverside and UC Merced—the two UC campuses located in these underrepresented regions—have relatively low transfer enrollment despite high transfer admission rates. Increasing transfer enrollment at these campuses will likely involve encouraging more students to apply.
In its 2030 Capacity Plan, UC has outlined goals to expand outreach efforts and increase transfer enrollment at UC Riverside and UC Merced. UC Riverside is developing a regional pilot transfer pipeline that would automatically enroll high school students first in a nearby community college and then in its own campus, while UC Merced plans to partner with 14 regional community colleges to create new transfer degree pathways. These and other intra-regional initiatives will be necessary to maximize the potential of campuses already located in underserved regions.
At the same time, ensuring equitable access to UC also calls for broader inter-regional outreach, especially given the system’s limited geographic presence compared to CSU. Promisingly, recent state legislation has convened leadership from across the state’s higher education systems to work toward closing regional opportunity gaps in transfer pathways. These efforts will be necessary to effectively broaden access to transfer across the state and encourage enrollment among students in regions with historically low representation and educational attainment.