How LEAs can support increases in college enrollment

Following a decline during the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment is projected to grow in California in the next decade, according to Public Policy Institute of California’s (PPIC) June report and policy brief on the future of higher education enrollment in the state.

Among other goals, The California Blueprint, introduced by the state in 2022, aims to have 70 percent postsecondary attainment for working-age adults by 2030. However, falling birth rates, migration to other parts of the country and other factors that contribute to a stagnant, if not dwindling, population are at play as the California Community Colleges (CCC), California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) systems pursue this mission.

“Growth in college enrollment will depend on increases in college-going and persistence rates rather than increases in the number of Californians,” according to PPIC researchers. “The good news is that California has seen increases in college-going and completion in recent years, especially at the state’s public universities: the UC and the CSU. Educators and policymakers want this trend to continue.”

Report findings

Higher education has traditionally been tied to economic stability and mobility and overall well-being. Demand for college graduates is “stronger than ever,” the report states.

“Declines in the number of young adults of prime college-going ages will be offset by rising rates of college-going. We expect college-going rates to resume the upward trajectory that we observed prior to the pandemic. This will help mitigate the effect of demographic changes,” according to the report.

PPIC is predicting a slight bump in enrollment until 2035 before dropping off. The growing number of high school students who complete A-G requirements prior to graduating and pursuing higher education will greatly contribute to this.

UCs are expected to see the most substantial gains in enrollment and CSU and private nonprofit colleges will have modest growth while community colleges will struggle and experience limited improvements.

Additionally, researchers anticipate that the student population will become more racially/ethnically diverse.

“These increases in enrollment will help the state reach its goal of 40 percent of working-age adults with bachelor’s degrees by 2035. However, this goal is reachable largely because a substantial share of people who moved to California have bachelor’s degrees (57 percent of 25- to 54-year-olds). In contrast, only 35 percent of California-born young adults have a bachelor’s degree. A focus on increasing college completion among young Californians would improve educational mobility — and help close equity gaps in the state’s higher education systems.”

The capacity and funding constraints public college systems will face is also detailed in the report. “California has a long track record of public investment in higher education that has allowed for large enrollment increases. Bonds to pay for infrastructure, whether it is online capacity or brick and mortar classrooms, will be necessary to realize the projected enrollment increases,” researchers said, adding that “the last state bond to fund higher education infrastructure was passed in 2006.” Of note, the statewide facilities bond that was recently agreed upon by the Legislature to place on the November 2024 ballot does not include UCs or CSUs.

Policy brief

Suggestions on how to increase college completion among younger residents are covered in the report’s corresponding policy brief.

Developing a pathway that starts at entering high school, to completing it and moving on to college is one recommended approach.

“Currently, only about 35 percent of California ninth graders will earn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are in their mid- to late-20s. Setting a goal of 45 percent would be both more ambitious and complementary to the current goal,” according to the brief. “By setting such a goal, California policymakers and higher education officials could concentrate their efforts at the precise ages where there is the most leverage: when high school students and young adults are making critical decisions about their educational pathways.”

At the K-12 level, implementing local policies and practices including incorporating A-G requirements into the default curriculum and fostering a college-going culture are helpful.