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Blog Post · June 28, 2024

Video: The Future of Higher Education Enrollment in California

photo - University Students Walking Outside on Campus

College enrollment and completion have long trended upward in California, but enrollment fell during the pandemic, and the state population is projected to grow very slowly—if at all—in the coming decades. Last week, PPIC senior fellow Hans Johnson outlined a new report on the future of college enrollment across the state’s major higher education sectors: the University of California (UC), the California State University (CSU), the California Community Colleges (CCC), and private nonprofit colleges.

“California is in an unprecedented demographic position, historically, and that has important implications for higher ed enrollment in our state,” Johnson said. The state has experienced a sharp slowdown in population growth, and it recently experienced declines for the first time in its history.

Moreover, the rising cost of tuition and other expenses has raised questions about the value of a college degree. Johnson pointed to PPIC research showing that college is worth it, for the most part. He also noted that, according to the PPIC Statewide Survey, most Californians still want their children to go to college and earn at least a bachelor’s degree.

While California’s high school graduation rates have not changed much in recent years, college participation had been increasing before the pandemic. “Of particular importance is the number of high school graduates who have taken the college prep courses required for admission to UC and CSU—known as the A–G courses,” said Johnson. Rising rates of college readiness are a key factor in PPIC’s projection that enrollment at UC will continue to grow over the next decade. CSU and the state’s private nonprofit colleges are expected see more modest increases.

Johnson noted that CCC enrollment is most difficult to predict, given the ups and downs the system has long experienced. “We project that there will be increases in attendance at the CCCs,” he said, “but enrollment is unlikely to return to previous highs.”

California recently set a goal for degree attainment: that 40% of working-age adults hold bachelor’s degrees by 2030. While increases in college enrollment and completion are helping the state achieve this goal, Johnson noted that California both attracts a lot of college graduates from other states and loses a significant number of adults with lower levels of education to other states. “We are reaching this goal partly because of that differential migration—which I would say is not a great way to do it,” he said. “A goal of 50% of California youth going through our high schools and earning college degrees would be ambitious but also more appropriate.”

What would be needed to reach this goal? “I cannot overstate how important college readiness is,” Johnson said. He pointed to wide variation in college readiness across high school districts, which is not explained completely by student demographics. “A lot of it is explained by the policies and practices of local districts,” he said. “We see some pretty strong increases in districts that have adopted a college-going culture.”

Efforts to improve college graduation could also make a big difference. “The number of students who enter our colleges and then leave without achieving any of their goals . . . is phenomenal,” said Johnson. “Just increasing the persistence of students who are already in our system could have a huge impact.”


a-g courses Access Affordability California Community Colleges California State University Completion enrollment Equity Higher Education K–12 Education Population University of California