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College enrollment in California dipped. It’s worse in the San Joaquin Valley.

UC Merced students on the first day of instruction.
Sam Yniguez
UC Merced
UC Merced students on the first day of instruction.

FRESNO, Calif. — New data released by the Public Policy Institute of California shows statewide college enrollment by recent high school grads was down 5% in 2020.

The data revealed the disproportionate college-going rates by region in the state. For example, the Bay Area and Southern California saw college enrollment rates upwards of 70%. But the Inland Empire and the San Joaquin Valley regions saw much lower rates at around 53%.

Enrollment rates in the report were below average for English language learners and low income students. Asian students were the most likely to go to college at 85%, followed by white students at 68%.

Ben Duran, executive director at the Central Valley Higher Education Consortium says the data mirrors socio-economic issues that exist in the Valley.

“You have regions where they're predominantly lower income families,” Duran says. “A lot of the Central Valley doesn't have a lot of college graduates.”

Community college over a four-year university

The PPIC data showed most high school students in the Valley opt for community colleges.

Enrollment at community colleges took a hit in 2020 because of the pandemic, but they have slowly bounced back.

“Almost all, if not all community colleges in the Central Valley are back to pre-pandemic levels or higher so they've been able to attract and get students back into college,” Duran says. “A lot of it has to do with cost, a lot of that has to do with access and familiarity with the area.”

Community college students also make up much of University of California and California State University enrollment in 2022, reaching about a quarter of UC enrollees, and just under half of CSU enrollees according to the data.

Duran says it can be a matter of convenience.

“Students who go to community college who transfer to a CSU are getting out faster than students who start as freshmen,” Duran says.

The report noted admission rates into universities could be attributed to this majority too, as University of California on average only admitted 27% of its applicants in 2022. In stark contrast, UC Merced – the only such campus in the Valley – has the highest freshman admission rate at 88%.

Still, fewer than 5% of Valley high school students attended a University of California. The southern Valley, encompassing areas like Tulare and Kern counties, had the lowest rate of high school students attending a UC in the state, at 3%.

Organizations like the Higher Education Consortium have developed plans to get more students through the college pipeline with proposed measures like offering college credits in high school and improving the transfer process.

Rachel Livinal reports on higher education for KVPR through a partnership with the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative.