Opportunity Imbalance: Race, Gender, and California’s Education-to-Employment Pipeline

While California’s economy rapidly adds higher-paying jobs,1 millions of Californians fail to qualify for these opportunities because they lack the required credential or degree. With lagging college completion rates, too few Californians can benefit from the state’s projected economic growth, and many employers look out of state and overseas for the right talent. A looming deficit of more than 2 million workers with degrees or credentials by 2025 stands in the way of California meeting its economic needs.2 Identifying inequities in the education-to-employment pipeline is critical to effectively closing California’s degree and credential gap, and making sure that the ideal of the California dream is accessible to all.

This brief presents the educational and employment outlooks for California’s population, followed by factsheets for each of California’s largest racial/ethnic groups, including (ordered by population size):

We examine the most current data at three key points in the pipeline—high school, postsecondary education, and workforce—to unearth where trends and challenges are consistent across racial/ethnic groups in California and where they are distinct. Within each population, we also show how patterns hold up across gender, as well as across regions.

Key Findings



Latinos in California earn the lowest median wages of all racial/ethnic groups, but they also show the largest improvements in high school completion and college enrollment.



Black Californians experience the greatest educational gender disparities—Black women have much stronger educational outcomes than Black men.


Native Americans

Native Americans in California suffer from the lowest workforce participation rate.


Consistent across all racial/ethnic groups:

  • High school graduation rates are improving steadily, but college completion rates are not following suit.
  • Women fare better than men in educational outcomes. 
  • Conversely, women in the workforce earn less than men, often because they are employed in lower-paying occupations.
  • Rural regions fall behind urban ones in both education and economic outcomes.

High School

A growing number of high school students are positioning themselves for future success by graduating high school on time. California’s statewide high school graduation rate improved from 77% in 2010 to 84% in 2016. While high school graduation rates improved for students of all races over that period, Black and Native American students still graduate from high school at the lowest rates. Across all groups, high school graduation rates for women are higher than those for men.

Completing high school is an important step to accessing economic opportunity, but it is also critical in this economy to graduate academically prepared for college. Unfortunately, our state still has a major leak at this point in the pipeline; eligibility rates among high school graduates for the state’s publicly funded four-year institutions—the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU)—are improving, but not nearly as quickly as the state needs. Across California’s high school graduates, only 40% of men and 51% of women in 2016 completed the necessary credits required for attending the state’s public four-year institutions.5 These rates are even lower for Latino, Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander students (Figure 1), as well as students in the rural regions of the state that often do not offer all of the A-G courses required for UC/CSU eligibility.6 Again, women in every racial/ethnic group have higher UC and CSU eligibility rates compared to men.

Fig 1. UC/CSU Eligibility Rates for California High School Graduates, 2016

Source: California Competes’ calculations of California Department of Education data for 2015-16

Postsecondary Education

Community colleges are a popular choice for Californians. Given its size and open access, it is not surprising that the California Community Colleges enroll the majority of college students overall in the state, as well as within each racial/ethnic group in this brief (Figure 2). 

Where variability exists is in enrollment in the other segments in California—UC, CSU, and private institutions. Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander college students, particularly women, are overrepresented at private for-profit institutions, which have historically lower completion and often job placement rates than other segments. Black, Native American, and Pacific Islander students are also underrepresented at UC and CSU.

Fig 2. Enrollment in California Colleges, 2016

 CCC    CSU    UC    Private, For-Profit    Private, Non-Profit   

Source: California Competes’ calculations of Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data for 2015-16

State improvements in high school completion and college enrollment are not resulting in matched improvements in college completion. Just over half of California’s college students complete their associate’s degree in three years or bachelor’s degree in six years (Figure 3), and this rate is lower still for Black, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander populations, and for men compared to women (see factsheets for detail).7 Addressing the college completion challenge is critical as Californians without a college degree are increasingly shut out of occupations with high projected growth, such as software engineers and registered nurses.

Fig 3. Completion Rates for California College Students, 2016

Source: California Competes’ calculations of IPEDS data for 4-year cohort starting in 2010 and 2-year cohort starting in 2013

Comparing educational attainment levels across age groups shows a mix of progress and stagnation (Figure 4). Postsecondary degree attainment rates are lowest for Latino adults but are on the rise. Degree attainment for Asian adults is also growing quickly, but Black and Native American adults have not benefited from generational improvement in this area. Lack of progress for these racial/ethnic groups make it clear that time alone will not take the place of intentional, concerted statewide supports to improve postsecondary access and completion for all.

Fig 4. Californians with a College Degree by Age, 2016

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


The gender gap in workforce participation—the percentage of adults who are either employed or looking for employment—moves in the opposite direction as does education. Despite having higher educational attainment, women have lower workforce participation rates than men (Figure 5). The only exception is in the Black workforce, where men and women have similar participation rates. Low participation rates can be a symptom of issues like disability or incarceration that disproportionately keep members of some racial/ethnic groups from seeking employment.8

Fig 5. Workforce Participation Rates for 25- to 64-year-old Californians, 2016

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

Median wages for those who are in the workforce show inequities across race/ethnicity and gender. This wage gap is in part due to variability in occupations. For example, Asians in the workforce earn about $7,500 more than the state median wage and have high representation in high-wage STEM occupations. Latino, Black, and Native American workers on average earn below the median wage and are concentrated in lower-wage fields. Even those Latino, Black, and Native American workers employed in higher-wage fields tend to hold lower-paying jobs within those fields (see factsheets for detail).

In addition to these differences, across all racial/ethnic groups, the gender wage gap is strong. In contrast to the gender gap in education, men consistently earn higher wages than women, with the largest gap among White workers and the smallest gap among Black workers (Figure 6). Similar to the wage gaps between racial/ethnic groups, the gender wage gap is related to women having higher representation in lower-wage fields and more often holding lower-wage jobs within those fields (see factsheets for detail).

Fig 6. Median Wage and Gender Wage Gap in California, 2016

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

California’s regions are vastly different in population size, landscape, and industry, leading to stark differences in median wages. Even within regions, wages differ by race, though these trends are often masked by aggregate data. For example, while wages for Pacific Islanders are near the overall state median, Pacific Islanders in the Bay Area (where most of California’s Pacific Islanders reside) earn 24% less than the median wage in their region (Figure 7). Similarly, Asians statewide surpass the state median wage, but in some regions, they earn below the regional median.

Furthermore, while wages vary widely across regions within high-paying fields, there are smaller differences in wages within low-paying fields. For example, for someone employed in architecture and engineering, the difference in median wages between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley is $30,000. In comparison, the regional difference for someone employed in the low-wage personal care and service field is only $3,000. This is particularly problematic for Black, Pacific Islander, and Latino workers who hold more of the low-wage jobs in urban areas.

Fig 7. Wage Gaps from the Regional Median, 2016

Bay Area $48,907 -39% +23% +13% -23% -23% -24%
Central Coast $34,736 -30% +39% +28% +13% +0% -2%
Central Sierra $35,158 -23% +7% N/A N/A -16% N/A
Inland Empire $33,143 -17% +29% +19% +3% -14% -9%
Los Angeles $33,713 -27% +49% +17% +4% +9% +2%
Northern California $29,407 -26% +5% +7% -5% -11% -44%
Orange $40,104 -33% +39% +15% +5% -5% -5%
Sacramento-Tahoe $38,148 -24% +16% -4% -15% -14% -26%
San Diego-Imperial $38,529 -31% +25% +8% -5% -19% -11%
San Joaquin Valley $29,344 -21% +40% +6% +7% +1% +5%
Upper Sac Valley $29,344 -15% +7% -23% -31% +3% N/A
Statewide $37,478 -31% +31% +20% -6% -16% -8%

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


To secure California’s future economy, the state must incorporate an equity lens in improving outcomes for California’s students and workforce. Overall trends in high school graduation rates, college completion, and employment hide stark challenges for different populations, such as educational outcomes for men of color, workforce outcomes for women, and overall outcomes for rural residents. Understanding disaggregated trends is a first step to securing a strong and vital future for the state’s diverse citizens and its economy.

Two important public policy measures are critical to addressing the persistent inequities in California’s education-to-employment pipeline.

California needs a statewide, comprehensive education data system—with unique student identifiers—that incorporates P-12, postsecondary, and workforce outcomes and allows for disaggregation by race/ethnicity. Longitudinal data are essential to clearly understand, document, and eradicate the inequitable pathways highlighted in this brief. Strong evidence shows that degrees and certificates lead to better economic outcomes, but the individual effect cannot be measured without clearly connecting postsecondary graduates to their workforce outcomes. Right now, those unique pieces of information reside in separate datasets, and we cannot easily account for students and workers who move in and out of systems or occupations. 

California needs a statewide higher education coordinating entity. A state agency for higher education is the most appropriate entity to own the data and its analysis and to hold the state and its various higher education segments accountable for equitable educational and economic outcomes. A key responsibility of this entity would be to inform state-level postsecondary and workforce planning through recommendations such as how best to invest state resources to close the degree gap. This degree gap will only be eliminated once policymakers and institutions address the racial, ethnic, and gender gaps highlighted in this brief.


This brief was made possible through support from the College Futures Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, James Irvine Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and Rosalinde & Arthur Gilbert Foundation.


  1. State of California Employment Development Department (2016). California Occupational Employment Projections Between 2014 – 2024http://www.labormarketinfo.edd.ca.gov/file/occproj/cal$occnarr-2014-2024.pdf
  2. California Competes (2015). Mind the gap: Delivering on California’s promise for higher educationhttp://californiacompetes.org/degree-gap/
  3. Recognizing that there is not complete agreement on the best terminology, we use the term “Latino” throughout this brief to refer to men, women, and other Latino/a/x California residents.
  4. “Asian” is applied to a wide range of nationalities that have historically different economic and educational outcomes, thus making generalizations about this racial/ethnic group particularly difficult. This broad category includes South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Filipino because many data sources do not allow for disaggregation within the Asian population.
  5. The course requirements, called “A through G,” include seven subject areas for which UCs and CSUs stipulate certain amounts of credits that students must have completed with a C or better in high school to be eligible to enroll directly at a UC or CSU after high school.
  6. Gao, N., Lopes, L., and Lee., G. (November 2017). Just the facts: California’s public high school graduation requirements. Public Policy Institute of California. http://www.ppic.org/wp-content/uploads/hs-graduation-requirements.pdf
  7. The completion rates are for completion within 150% of normal time, including community college students who complete an associate’s degree in three years, first-time freshmen at four-year institutions who complete a bachelor’s degree in six years, as well as students who transfer from community colleges to UCs and CSUs and complete a bachelor’s degree within three years. Completion data for students who transferred from community college to private non-profit or for-profit colleges are not included in this figure.
  8. Krause, E., and Sawhill, I. (May 2017). What we know and don’t know about declining labor force participation: A review. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/ccf_20170517_declining_labor_force_participation_sawhill1.pdf

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