Back to College: California's Imperative to Re-Engage Adults

Back to College is a series of reports that illuminates the millions of Californians who stopped out of college before completing their degree and now pay the price through diminished earnings and limited economic and social mobility. Part One assesses this population of four million California adults aged 25-64 and identifies the personal obstacles and systemic barriers they face upon returning to college to complete their degree. The next report will outline straightforward recommendations policymakers should incorporate in 2019 to empower these adults to return to college, graduate, and thrive in California’s innovation economy.

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Highlights from Part One

Four million Californians aged 25 to 64, a population nearly as large as that of the City of Los Angeles, have completed college courses but left school without finishing a degree.

Supporting this population in returning to college and through degree completion will also contribute to balancing California’s severe income inequality since higher rates of poor students and students of color do not complete college in their first try due to structural and institutional barriers like unaffordability, opaque systems, and a lack of institutional supports.

Adult Educational Attainment by the Numbers


Several terms define adults who are either enrolled in the postsecondary system or could benefit from being enrolled. Among adults in California aged 25-64:


Source: California Competes’ calculations of American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) 2016 five-year estimate data and the National Student Clearinghouse

About half of adults in California with some college but no degree are people of color, revealing a key opportunity to improve equity in California through addressing the needs of this diverse group.

Building educational options for adults is vital in a state where vast income inequality and high cost of living are juxtaposed against aspirations of equitable access to individual economic and social well-being.

California Adults (25-64 years old) with Some College But No Degree by Race


Just over half of Californians with some college but no degree are people of color.

In California, the share of adults with some college but no degree differs substantially by race and ethnicity.

While a seemingly low percentage (17%) of Latino adults aged 25 to 64—1.4 million people—have some college but no degree, this figure has more to do with lagging college enrollment for Latinos rather than high college completion rates. Fully 65 percent of Latino Californians aged 25 to 64 never attended college.

College Attendance Vs. Completion for California Adults (25-64 years old)


About half of Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander Californians who attempted college did not complete.


Source: California Competes’ calculations of American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) 2016 five-year estimate data

Almost twice as many adults with some college but no degree are uninsured, compared to those with a degree. Non-completing adults are also less likely to own their homes than those with a college degree.

Among renters, adults with some college but no degree are more likely than those with a degree to be paying at least 30 percent of their income on housing, a common indicator of financial health.

Health Insurance & Home Ownership by Educational Attainment for California Adults (25-64 years old)


Adults with some college but no degree are less likely to own homes or have health insurance than those with a college degree.


Source: California Competes’ calculations of American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) 2016 five-year estimate data

Trends among adults with some college but no degree vary by race and region in California.

For example, in the Central Sierra and Northern California, this group is almost entirely White. Whereas in Los Angeles and the Inland Empire, Latinos make up approximately 40 percent of those with some college but no degree. These characteristics mirror the broader population of each region, but equity gaps still exist.

Racial/Ethnic Composition of California Adults (25-64 years old) with Some College But No Degree by Region


 Latino    White    Asian    Black    Native American    Other


Source: California Competes’ calculations of American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) 2016 five-year estimate data

Total Adults Aged 25-64 Population by Region


 Latino    White    Asian    Black    Native American    Other


Source: California Competes’ calculations of American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) 2016 five-year estimate data

California has large regional differences in wages for those with some college but no degree.

For example, adults with some college but no degree in the Bay Area—a region with relatively high degree attainment—make $9,000 less than the regional median wage. However in the San Joaquin Valley, where more individuals have only a high school diploma or less, the trend is opposite—adults with some college but no degree make $4,000 more than the regional median.

Wage Gap of Adults with Some College But No Degree Compared to Regional Median Wage



Source: California Competes’ calculations of American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) 2016 five-year estimate data

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