News & Commentary

Testimony on Addressing Capacity Shortfalls at California’s Universities

Ria Sengupta Bhatt, the new director of public policy at College Futures Foundation, testified before the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Education Finance on March 10, 2020 on the topic of building capacity at California’s colleges and universities. Her remarks follow.

We must build higher education capacity if California’s diverse students are to earn degrees, achieve their dreams, and help strengthen our economy and society. The issue of capacity is both vital and complex, and steps can be taken in the near term to address it.

At College Futures Foundation, we know that B.A. completion is strongly tied to economic mobility. That’s why we work with organizations and leaders across the state to catalyze systemic change, increase degree completion, and close equity gaps. We see every day how capacity shortfalls affect our students and communities.

How our higher education capacity report came together

College Futures Foundation recently commissioned McKinsey & Company to study postsecondary capacity issues in the state. This past fall, we released a report entitled Making Room for Success: Addressing Capacity Shortfalls at California’s Universities. Our report examines capacity at the California Community Colleges, the University of California, the California State University, and the independent colleges and universities (private schools). It also looks at connections to workforce and the economy.

K–12 and transfer

Let’s start with the good news: K–12 and community college students have made significant gains thanks to efforts undertaken by the state and the education segments in the past decade. More students are graduating from high school than ever before and more of them complete A–G college-prep coursework. Even as California’s K–12 population is in decline, the number of college-ready high school graduates is expected to climb by about 10% annually through 2030. In addition, growing numbers of community college students complete transfer pathways and continue their education at a 4-year institution. Expanded student support services and improved coordination with universities are focused on helping them transfer more easily.

University capacity shortfalls

We want that success to continue. But the four-year higher education institutions in our state do not have enough capacity. All but two campuses in our public four-year systems have declared some level of impaction.

In the 2018–2019 school year, eligibility surpassed capacity by about 73,000 qualified students at California four-year institutions. If we don’t act, that number will nearly double by 2030. California’s four-years would not be able to accommodate 144,000 qualified students annually by that year. There is a surplus of about 44,000 seats at community colleges, but that’s not nearly enough to make up the shortfall.

Equity implications
The capacity challenges also widen the state’s already deep racial, income, and geographic inequities. Students from low-income families and communities of color have the most to gain from a college degree, but they’re the ones whom the capacity crisis hurts most. These students already face formidable barriers to college. They cannot afford the additional burdens of moving to educational opportunities outside their region or the state.

The capacity issues are particularly acute in regions with the highest proportion of low-income families and communities of color—the Inland Empire, the Central Valley, and Los Angeles.

  • By 2030, the Inland Empire will face an annual capacity gap of 20,000 seats for four-year degrees—more than half of the qualified students in the region.
  • The Central Valley will face an annual capacity gap of 14,000 seats for four-year degrees—again nearly half of the qualified students in the region.
  • Los Angeles, the state’s biggest region, will face an annual capacity gap of 16,000 seats for four-year degrees.

These are not the only regions with this troubling trend. Capacity is truly a statewide issue, and every community can and must do more to address it.

The capacity crisis is a threat to the state’s economic future

Compounding this capacity challenge is our changing economy. As B.A. capacity gaps grow, these regions—like the rest of California—face increasing demand for workers with a college degree. By 2030, the state is projected to have a shortfall of nearly 1.1 million workers with a bachelor’s degree. As recently heard from PPIC, good early progress is being made towards closing that gap, but demand remains high and much more needs to be done.

Key solutions

We recommend three concrete steps to address capacity and demand for degrees that involve innovation across segments and/or sectors.

#1 – Improved Student Experience:

  • First, to accommodate demand, we need to improve the way we serve students. California should expand existing and emerging student success reforms to help students earn their degrees more efficiently, and as a result, create room for more students.
  • We applaud the state’s leadership on many of these reforms—dual enrollment, clearer degree pathways, developmental ed reform.
  • Now is the time to lean further into these efforts to ensure more students are benefitting from them.
  • Future efforts should be grounded in student needs and address critical barriers such as the full cost of college attendance.
  • Implemented broadly and concurrently, these reforms will improve and accelerate the student experience, and simultaneously increase capacity.

#2 – Creative Use of Space:

  • Second, to expand our supply, we need to change the way we use space and resources.
  • We should leverage physical space more creatively by sharing facilities and other resources throughout the entire education system.
  • Class schedules should maximize available resources, and offer more courses during the summers, evenings, and weekends. Just as businesses have moved to flexible shifts and locations, higher education needs to think beyond its traditional times and capacities.
  • Further, capacity shortfalls could be alleviated if our public four-year segments considered the student enrollment pool collaboratively to optimize placement.

#3 – Regional Partnerships:

Third, we need to focus on regions with the greatest needs, and regional partnerships should be key players in this work.

  • California is home to several regional collaboratives that work across sectors and education segments to address regional challenges.
  • We should leverage those efforts to address the crisis at hand. Regional partnerships can often move more quickly than the state to identify needs, secure local support, pinpoint degrees that will address local demand, and develop pilot projects.

In summary

To sum up: K–12 is better preparing students for higher education, our economy needs more workers with degrees, and we must improve higher education capacity to meet those demands.

The status quo is untenable. Students who are ready and eager to continue their higher education are among the state’s best assets. If we work together to enable these students to fulfill their potential, our state can reap the benefits for years to come.