Underrepresented Students Get Hit Hardest When Public University Access is Cut

Low-income and first-generation college students are California’s future. Most come from racial/ethnic groups that have been underrepresented in higher education—and they are the majority of high school graduates today.

But recent increases in enrollment and degree completion among historically underrepresented groups are not happening fast enough to keep pace with population changes. At the same time, opportunities for resident Californians have fallen victim to budget cuts, and these reductions in access have disproportionately hurt underrepresented students.

There’s good news: the number of degrees awarded to underrepresented California minority students increased by 55 percent between 2005 and 2013. But the bad news is that underrepresented minority degrees as a share of total BA degrees only increased by 6 percent.

As a result, the attainment gaps have grown despite increases in enrollments and degrees among underrepresented students.

Postsecondary opportunity for Latino, African American, Native American, and Alaskan Native students is further threatened because of the collision between growing student enrollment demand and shrinking state budgets.

Recent increases in enrollment and degree completion among historically underrepresented racial/ethnic groups are not happening fast enough to keep pace with population changes.

Growth in new freshman admissions has plateaued in both the University of California and California State University systems since the Great Recession, despite continued strong application demand. At UC, for example, the ratio of resident applications to admissions has fallen among all racial and ethnic subgroups since 2010—but Latino and African American applicants have experienced the largest declines. The trends demonstrate that postsecondary opportunity is increasingly difficult for all resident applicants, but especially so among underrepresented students.

But California can turn this educational deficit around. A full arsenal of improvements will be required. California will have to:

  • Improve high school graduation rates;
  • Increase the proportion of minority high school graduates who attend college at both the CSU and UC;
  • Increase the success rates of those who do enroll in college;
  • Substantially increase the number of minority community college students who transfer into four-year institutions to complete a baccalaureate degree; and
  • Re-engage the significant number of young minority students who have some college but no degree and enable them to go back to college and be successful in getting a degree.

The bottom line is that California will have to expand college access for minorities in all public sectors to eliminate attainment gaps in the next decade. Equity will further erode without substantial policy interventions to improve the educational outcomes of minorities.


To learn more, read Securing the Public Trust, a report on practical steps toward higher education finance reform in California.