College enrollment takes a dip in California

PPIC report shows that Latino, Black, low-income and English learning graduates are less likely to enroll than Asian and White students

(Rigo Moran)
Darren Fraser
Published December 14, 2023  • 
11:30 am

CALIFORNIA – In a recent eye-opening revelation, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has unveiled a report that sheds light on the educational journey of California’s high school seniors. The findings are both intriguing and concerning. 

According to the report “College Access in California,” which was published this December, only 62% of the Class of 2020 high school graduates in the Golden State chose to enroll in college within a year of receiving their diplomas. This figure represents a 5% drop from the peak enrollment rate of 67% observed in 2017-2018.

Digging deeper into the report, it becomes evident that not all students are equally represented in these enrollment statistics. Latino, Black, low-income and English-learning students face greater challenges when it comes to accessing higher education compared to their Asian and White counterparts.

From the report, the highest percentage of students who enrolled in college right after graduation were Asian students. The PPIC notes that 86% of these students enrolled in college within 12 months of graduation. 

Following that is White and female student populations, whose enrollment rates both came out to at- or near- 68%. Fifty seven percent of male students enrolled, followed by Latinos at 55%, Blacks at 54%, low-income students at 53% and English learners at 41%. An English learner is an individual whose native language is not English.

PPIC’s Iwunze Ugo, who drafted the report’s fact sheet, said that race classifications are inclusive to all groups. For example, “Black” includes male and female groups whereas “male” includes all ethnic categories, etc. 

Ugo added that “low-income is based on the California Department of Education measure of socioeconomic disadvantage, which is a combination of eligibility for free or reduced price meals (which itself is based on family income) and parent education.”


The story doesn’t end there. The report goes even further when breaking these statistics up by geographical regions. Enrollment was highest among students who live in Orange County at 73%. Seventy-two percent of students who live in the Bay Area enrolled. North San Joaquin Valley’s enrollment was reported at 55% while the South San Joaquin Valley at 54% and the Inland Empire, at 52%, have the lowest enrollment numbers.

For causing factors, the PPIC highlights numerous reasons why college enrollment is on the decline in the state.

A separate PPIC report from March 31, 2023 notes that colleges are still dealing with the fallout from the pandemic. Overall enrollment fell 12% at the start of the pandemic – generally accepted as March 2020. Enrollment at non-for-profit colleges decreased by 5% from 2019 to 2021. Conversely, for-profit colleges experienced a 5% increase in enrollment during the same period.

The state’s public college system – University of California (UC), California State University (CSU) and California Community Colleges (CCC) – experienced different enrollment trends. 

Enrollment in UC increased by 2% between 2019 and 2022 while CSU saw a 6% decline. CCC, the most affordable school system, experienced a 17% drop in enrollment during the same period. PPIC attributes this to sluggish population growth, a drop in K-12 enrollment and a strong job market.


Of course, cost is also a prohibitive factor in these enrollment numbers. For the 2024-2025 school year, a California resident attending UC as an undergraduate and living on campus can expect to pay over $42,000 in tuition and other costs. Costs are lower for those who are living off campus. 

CSU expenses vary by campus. For the 2023-2024 school year, an undergraduate attending Fresno State – who lives on campus – can expect to pay $23,743; the cost is $30,544 for San Francisco State.

Despite the drop in enrollment, CCC is the least expensive community college system in the country. The average in-state tuition for CCC is $1,510 per semester.


The PPIC report also provided information on where the students enrolled. According to the report, 26% of Asian students enrolled at UC campus. Sixteen percent enrolled at CSU. Fewer than 10% of students in the other demographic categories enrolled at a UC.

The majority of students enrolled at a CCC. On average, 32% of students elected to attend community college.

Twelve percent of students in the Bay Area enrolled at a UC, followed by 9% of students who live in Los Angeles or Orange County. Despite having the overall lowest enrollment numbers, 7% of Inland Empire students enrolled at UC.

CCC was the most popular destination among students from all areas. Forty-six percent of Central Coast high school graduates enrolled at a community college.

In-state private colleges and out-of-state colleges attracted the lowest number of graduates, by race or location. White students constituted the largest group to attend an out-of-state college at 16%. Five percent of Asian students enrolled at an in-state private college.


On Dec. 1, PPIC hosted a panel discussion with UC President Michael V. Drake, CSU Chancellor Mildred Garcia and CCC Executive Vice Chancellor Aisha N. Lowe. The discussion focused on how California’s public college system can prepare students to meet the challenges of the future.

Lowe mentioned that 6.8 California residents have a high school diploma but no college credential.

“Community college is not part of the lives of millions of Californians,” she said. Lowe added, “Trends in population growth (have) left too few higher education opportunities for most disenfranchised Californians.”

Lowe said one solution is to redesign the traditional pathways to a college degree. One of these new approaches is dual enrollment, where high school students enroll in college courses. According to Lowe, dual enrollment provides real life experience of college and of what the students can accomplish.

“Dual enrollment is important for closing the achievement gaps for low-income students, for students of color (and) for students who have historically been disenfranchised by higher education,” said Lowe.

She added that high school students who participate in dual enrollment are more likely to graduate high school and to be admitted into college.

Darren Fraser