California State University Enrollment Declines Continue After Pandemic Emergency

Enrollment across the California State University system declined by 6.5% from 2019-2022.
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Margaret Attridge is a news reporter for BestColleges focusing on higher education news stories in California. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park in May 2022 with a BA in journalism and government and politics....
Published on March 14, 2024
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  • California State University reported an enrollment decline of 6.5% between 2019 and 2022.
  • Only four of the 23 campuses in the CSU system recorded enrollment growth from 2019-2022.
  • However, there was positive growth in the enrollment of historically excluded groups, with increases in Latino/a and Black student enrollments on multiple campuses.

More than three years since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down colleges and universities across the country, campuses have been trying to regain pre-pandemic enrollment numbers. For the California State University (CSU) system, the effort remains.

The CSU recorded an enrollment decline of 6.5% between 2019 and 2022, according to a report from the Campaign for College Opportunity.

After experiencing several years of enrollment growth, the CSU reached a peak in 2020 with a record 432,264 undergraduates. During the pandemic, enrollment declined 10,000 students from fall 2020 to fall 2021, followed by a further decline to 404,820 students in fall 2022.

Fall 2023 saw an additional decrease of 2,500 students, bringing undergraduate enrollment to 402,285.

While overall enrollment decreased, five campuses including Sacramento State University, San Jose State University, and CSU Los Angeles were less impacted, each experiencing declines below the systemwide average.

Most campuses saw a larger decline, including San Francisco State University with a 20% decline, CSU East Bay with 24.5%, and Sonoma State University with the largest decline of 34%.

Only four campuses — San Diego State University; California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo; CSU Fullerton; and CSU Long Beach — saw small increases in their student population.

Despite the enrollment decline, there was positive growth in the enrollment of historically excluded groups. The CSU reported an increase in its Latino/a student population, which grew steadily before the pandemic and, despite a dip in 2021, continues to increase.

Additionally, 11 of the 23 campuses have seen their Latino/a student populations grow over the past four years, and seven campuses have increased their Black student enrollment numbers.

State and National Trends

According to a BestColleges data report, between 2011 and 2021, undergraduate college enrollment declined by an average rate of 1.6% each year in the U.S. Undergraduate enrollment increased for the first time since before the pandemic in fall 2023, up 1.1% from 2022.

In contrast to the CSU, both the California Community Colleges (CCC) system and the University of California (UC) have started to rebound from their pandemic-era enrollment numbers.

While CCC enrollment declined by 21% from 2019-2020 to 2021-2022, the 116-campus system has started to bounce back, although it remains 13% below its pre-pandemic levels, according to the report.

UC saw enrollment increase by 3.2% from fall 2019 to fall 2023 and continues to see growth. Most recently the system reported a rise in applications for fall 2024, driven by increased interest from transfer students, California residents, and historically excluded groups.

Recommended Solutions

The report recommended several measures for campus leaders, system administrators, and state policymakers to implement to improve student retention and support campus enrollment.

Suggestions include:

  • Fostering a welcoming and supportive environment for students, especially for those from underrepresented and historically excluded backgrounds
  • Streamlining the transfer process from community colleges to four-year institutions
  • Continuing to support funding for financial aid and funding initiatives, especially considering the CSU's plan to increase tuition

Last month, Sacramento State University announced plans to open the nation's first Black Honors College this fall. It will be the first college or university to ever pursue an honors college specifically dedicated to supporting Black students' success.

In 2023, the CSU announced a new dual enrollment program with California Community Colleges, which guarantees high school graduates entering the CCC system future admission to any school in the CSU system if they commit to transferring within three years.

Additionally, in February, the CSU Board of Trustees voted to expand grants offered by the university system to include the cost of tuition, as well as living expenses for students with financial needs.