Untapped Opportunity: Understanding and Advancing Prospects for Californians without a College Degree


For the 6.8 million Californians ages 25–54 with a high school education but no associate’s or bachelor’s degree, employment prospects are increasingly limited—particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted plans for future education, employers’ expectations, available positions, and more. At the same time, the state needs an additional 2.4 million residents with college degrees by 2025 to meet the anticipated demand for skilled workers with critical credentials.

To better understand the untapped opportunities available to individuals who have yet to complete college—and for postsecondary institutions, employers, and the state—this report investigates the characteristics of this population, from their location and current employment to the challenges they face in accessing higher education. The analysis further compares potential graduates with their contemporaries who do hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

key findings
  1. Many potential graduates have some postsecondary education, but fewer have widely recognized certifications thereof.
  2. The state’s existing higher education structure does not adequately support potential college graduates, who often have to care for children, may lack access to high-speed internet at home, and may live in poverty.
  3. Potential graduates tend to be underpaid compared with college graduates and are more likely to be unemployed.
  4. Tailoring institutional policies to aid older students, promoting paid work-based learning opportunities, and encouraging coordination across institutions could help potential college graduates complete degrees.
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