Despite making up a growing proportion of California’s population, Latinos are less likely than whites, Asians, and blacks in the state to have graduated from a four-year college. The rollout of a new program that allows some community colleges to grant bachelor’s degrees has the potential to change that. But a new report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project cautions that the degree gaps aren’t going to close unless the schools and state lawmakers are willing to acknowledge and deliberately focus on them.

California is the 22nd state to allow community colleges to award four-year degrees. As with the 21 states before it, lawmakers who shepherded the proposal to fruition touted the workforce benefits in order to win over the business community. “Virtually nobody” approached the idea as a way to increase the equity of access to bachelor’s degrees, said Patricia Gándara, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project and the lead author of the report, despite the fact that the program could provide a path to higher education for young people in the state who have traditionally struggled to gain access.

Right now, California is nearly 1 million bachelor’s degrees shy of where it needs to be to be strong economically. While nearly half of whites and almost 60 percent of Asians in the state have a bachelor’s degrees, just 27 percent of blacks and 13 percent of Latinos hold bachelor’s degrees. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately concentrated in community colleges, and many fail to transfer to a four-year university after they earn an associate’s degree, despite the fact that more and more jobs require a bachelor’s. “This is the grand opportunity to break the back of that problem,” Gándara said.

She and her co-author, Marcela Cuellar at UC Davis, in the report lay out which community colleges are set to offer bachelor’s degrees by next year. Nearly half of the 15 schools in the initial pilot program are more than 50 percent white and Asian, even though white and Asian students make up only around a third of the state’s high-school graduates and already earn degrees at relatively high rates. Many of the bachelor’s programs these schools are slated to offer, selected in large part based on workforce needs, also have heavy math and science requirements, which, the report warns, could deter students of color. Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately less likely to enroll in math and science programs, and the report warns that schools will need to proactively encourage them to apply.

Gándara said that when her team pointed out to lawmakers and community-college administrators the fact that many of the chosen campuses do not serve large numbers of underrepresented minorities, “They kind of swallowed hard and said, ‘Oh my goodness.’” The oversight did not seem malicious, and, Gándara said, they seemed open to focusing on expanding access in the future.

But if equity does become a focus in the California program, it would be something of a departure from the way other states have approached their own programs. The report authors surveyed schools in Florida, Texas, and Washington—three states chosen for their demographic similarity to California—and found that campuses were rarely selected for their proximity to underrepresented groups, and that few actively reached out to these groups. “The individuals we interviewed were not opposed to seeing the BA programs as a tool for increasing equity in access to the BA,” write the authors, “For the most part, they just hadn't thought about it extensively.”

The report urges California to set a deliberate goal of expanding access to bachelor’s programs at community colleges for underrepresented students, in part by offering programs at schools near where they are concentrated, and to collect data on which programs enroll and graduate these students. The authors also suggest that schools market themselves to underrepresented groups and, as the programs grow, keep an eye out for barriers that stand in the way of access.

Ensuring equity of access for blacks and Latinos in community-college bachelor’s programs presents an especially crucial opportunity for California because the state bans outright affirmative action, and the two university systems that currently award four-year degrees have struggled to enroll a proportionate percentage of black and Latino students. (Proponents of the use of race in college admissions hope that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of the practice will bolster their case for bringing it back to California.)

Yet there are plenty of challenges to making equal access possible. The University of California, whose institutions provide bachelor’s and advanced degrees, doesn’t want programs cropping up in places that would detract from its own programs, and community colleges themselves have argued that they are already too cash-strapped and busy fulfilling a need for associate’s degrees and technical training to add other options to the mix. Beyond some meager funding for the pilot phase, the state did not provide additional money, so colleges will have to figure out how to pay to offer bachelor’s degrees and train faculty. As the report points out, California has some of the lowest community-college tuition in the nation, and schools spend only about $5,000 per full-time student (compared to about $9,500 to educate high-school students in the state).

But the risk of not expanding access, especially when it comes to the growing Latino population, is high. According to the report, California ranks 45th in the nation in baccalaureate completion. More than two-thirds of Latinos who pursue higher education attend community college, even when they’re capable of succeeding immediately at a four-year school. Many stay close to home because they have families to support and jobs to hold down, making the prospect of transferring to a school far away unlikely. If community colleges nearby offered degrees they were interested in, degree attainment in the state might rise. “This is an opportunity,” Gándara said, “to do something in an area that we haven’t had great success in.”