California's public universities grapple with uncertain future student enrollments
A pair of recent influential reports about potential college populations are helping to fuel the debate about whether campuses will need to expand to provide enough access to students.
The state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) projects modest growth at California’s two sprawling public university systems over the next seven years and says that UC and CSU won’t need to build new campuses. Another, a state-by-state national survey, agrees in general with that short-term prediction but then sees a subsequent, significant decline in California’s high school graduates into the early 2030s.
In contrast, however, education officials say those predictions may be undercounting, particularly since Latinos’ high school graduation and college attendance rates appear to be climbing fast. Declines in California high school graduates and college enrollments “have been projected for a long time and haven’t emerged yet,” said Todd Greenspan, the UC system’s director of academic planning. So, he added, “that’s where our skepticism comes in.”
On the most basic level, experts are debating what factors are most important in deciding how many classrooms, professors and dorm beds are needed and how to pay for that.
Is it the number of high school graduates? Or should college administrators pay more attention to a trend that more California students, especially Latinos, are taking college-preparatory classes in high school? And will the economy encourage or discourage college attendance, particularly among older students? What about changes in national immigration policies?
Getting the estimate right could determine whether students have access to higher education.
The state LAO report projects a 5 percent increase, or about 11,000 more students, across UC’s 10 campuses by 2024-25, and a 4 percent increase, or 15,000 more, across the 23 CSU campuses. It says that California’s two university systems can increase their capacity enough mainly by adding summer, weekend and online classes. “We believe a new campus is not warranted at this time,” it declared. The last new campuses constructed were UC Merced, which opened in 2005, and Cal State Channel Islands, in 2002. (The analyst did not look at community colleges.)
A separate national report last month by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) showed an overall drop in the number of high school graduates across the country and predicted more competition across state boundaries to recruit college students.
“Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates,” the WICHE study, uses federal statistics to show that a period of steady increases in high school graduates nationally ended in 2013 and that the nation is heading into “a period of stagnation” through 2023. An uptick is forecast for a couple of subsequent years, but then a decline mainly based on birth rates starts in 2025. As a result, 3.3 million high school graduates are forecast nationally for 2032, well below the 3.4 million last year.
The study also shows regional and ethnic variety. It predicts the South consistently growing, the West relatively stable with ups and a few downs, and significant declines in the Midwest and Northeast. Across the nation, the number of Latinos and Asians will grow significantly, while the share of whites and African Americans will be getting smaller, the report says.
In some states, a decline in potential applicants may mean more competition to recruit students from other states and countries, and to attract more adult learners, stated the report, which is in its ninth edition over 40 years.
Otherwise, a drop in enrollment revenues could pose painful decisions about how to sustain their programs and staff.
“California could probably stand taking off a little bit of that college enrollment pressure,” said Peace Bransberger, a coauthor of a study, “Knocking at the College Door.”
Although its numbers are not identical to those in the LAO report, “Knocking at the College Door” predicts a similar California pattern through 2025. It projects about 431,000 high school graduates by then, about 6,000 more than this year. But the WICHE study pushes more into the future and forecasts significant declines through 2032, when 394,117 high school graduates are projected in the state, about 13 percent below the peak in 2013.
“For California, it really does indicate reduced enrollment pressures for public institutions in particular,” said Peace Bransberger, a WICHE senior research analyst who is coauthor of the report. Given the difficulty of winning admission to some UC campuses and overcrowding at some CSU and community college campuses, she said: “California could probably stand taking off a little bit of that college enrollment pressure.” The projected decline, she said, could flatten somewhat but not be fully reversed if Latinos start attending college at much higher rates than they do currently.
WICHE researchers used federal birth rate data and high school graduation trends.
The state Legislative Analyst relied on separate projections by the California Department of Finance for a relatively flat number of high school graduates in California for the next decade that was slightly below the WICHE numbers: about 420,400 this spring, with a modest rise of about 25,000 seven years later and then a drop to about 427,000 by 2026. The state does not forecast beyond that.
However, both the Legislative Analyst and administrators at California’s public higher education systems say other trends, such as better preparation for college, point to some enrollment growth ahead if state funding keeps up with demand.
UC is paying close attention to the rising numbers of California high school graduates who fulfill the so-called A-G course requirements in high school, the first step to eligibility for a state university, said UC’s Greenspan. Statistics from the California Department of Education show that 43 percent, or 185,179, of high school graduates across the state met the A-G requirements in 2015, up from 35 percent, or 125,068, in 2005. And he expects continued improvements, especially among Latinos.
For the foreseeable future, demand for UC spots will continue to grow, although not at the rate of the recent past, Greenspan said.
He noted that applications from state residents increased to record levels this year even though the cohort of high school graduates declined somewhat. “It seems there is no lessening of desire among California residents to go to UC,” he said. Bolstered with extra state funding recently, UC undergraduate enrollment grew from about 163,000 10 years ago to 210,000 this past fall; at the same time, the share of non-Californians among them controversially rose from 5 percent to about 16 percent systemwide as UC sought the high supplemental tuition those out-of-state students pay.
The CSU system also is watching the rising rate of A-G course completion, said Edward Sullivan, assistant vice chancellor for academic research and resources. In addition, he said, fewer students dropping out after the first year or two means that overall enrollment and demand for classes will remain strong.
“I believe, generally speaking, that our enrollment will be sustained near historic highs for the next decade for sure,” he said. But to keep adding to that student body will require more state funding, he said. CSU this past fall enrolled nearly 423,000 undergraduates, about 79,000 more than a decade before. (Only about 5 percent of CSU undergraduates are from out of state.)
The Legislative Analyst study said that such trends are significant, but also noted some limits. For example, completing A-G courses does not mean that students have the grades and test scores to win admission, and many students who are admitted will choose to attend private schools or go to other states, the report noted.
At California’s community colleges, students do not need to complete A-G courses to enroll. But the rising A-G completion rate shows more students are interested in higher education and more will enroll at the community colleges, explained Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges system.
Plus, more working adults will feel the need for credentials or a degree and will return to school or will be recruited more heavily to do so. “That will offset the decline” in overall high school graduates, Oakley said. Enrollment, he noted, has not fully recovered from the drop suffered during budget cuts in the recession eight years ago: statewide enrollment this past spring was 1.56 million, down from 1.84 million in spring 2008. The improving economy also has led some people to return to the workforce rather than stay in school, Oakley added.
The two reports and education experts all concede that other factors could change forecasts. For example, deportation of undocumented students would hit California campuses hard. And the shape of the economy and families’ ability to afford tuition will figure in significantly.
As the LAO study concluded: “All long-term projections, including these enrollment projections, are subject to a level of uncertainty.”