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California's Community Colleges: At a Crossroads

California’s community colleges at critical crossroads as more students opt not to attend

Above: Student in front of Los Angeles City College Library.

Likelihood of online classes in the fall could keep students away for another semester.

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California’s community colleges face a difficult path forward.

Across the state, from San Diego to counties on the northern border, enrollments at many community colleges have plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic.

Systemwide, more than 260,000 fewer students enrolled in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, potentially threatening the long-term existence of some colleges unless they can dramatically turn things around, the system’s Board of Governors learned recently.

The largest college system in the nation, California’s community colleges enroll about 2 million full- and part-time students. The head count for those students, already flat for most of the past decade leading up to the pandemic, dropped 16.8% since last fall. Many students chose not to enroll in the fall because they couldn’t take classes online or didn’t like doing so along with other family and financial reasons.

The pandemic has upended everything about community college enrollments, which typically surge during economic turmoil. The declines, coupled with uncertainly over whether students will return, have put the colleges at a critical juncture.

Colleges that suffered significant drops could be at risk if they “don’t stabilize or build back enrollment” over the next several years, said Paul Feist, a spokesman for the California Community Colleges chancellor’s office, reiterating a warning that was delivered in a memo to the systemwide Board of Governors last month.

“These enrollment declines represent a significant challenge for the system overall and potential future threat to individual colleges’ viability barring significant local efforts to remain student-centered,” the memo stated.

Colleges will need to find creative ways to encourage students to return. Otherwise, they risk losing those students permanently, said Tatiana Melguizo, a professor at the USC Rossier School of Education who studies community colleges.

“The community colleges are the engine of opportunity,” Melguizo said. “If they are not aggressive at reaching out to these students and creating opportunities for them to be on campus, they are going to lose these students.”

Antonio Solorio is typical of the students that the colleges need to lure back. Solorio did not return to Mt. San Antonio College in Los Angeles County when the college shifted online last March, so he could work more hours at his retail job.

“I went to college because people told me if you go to college, you get a better job, then you get paid more. Maybe school wasn’t my thing,” Solorio said. “My route right now is getting a good job, try to achieve a good career, and see where that goes.”

It’s unclear whether enrollment will rebound in the fall. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday that all schools and community colleges can reopen as of June 15, but some community colleges are already planning to continue holding some or most classes online this fall and the system’s chancellor recently told the board of governors that he expected most fall courses to be virtual.

Map: Most California community colleges saw drops in student head counts

View our interactive map displaying student head count changes at California’s community colleges by district and by college from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

“We hope that the governor is correct and things will continue to roll out in a very positive manner, but we still have to be prepared and be cautious should we have another surge, or should we have any problems with the vaccine rollout between now and fall,” Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor that oversees the community colleges, told EdSource Thursday.

Oakley noted that over the past year, California has attempted to reopen the economy at different times only to have to pull back following spikes in cases of Covid-19. “Until we really see the opportunity to fully open up, we want to make sure that we’re careful. It’s a lot easier to pull back on that caution than to put it in place after we completely open up,” he said.

Oakley’s stance on the issue is ultimately only a recommendation to the colleges. The colleges are organized into 73 districts, which are run by locally elected boards of trustees. It’s a highly decentralized system that leaves specific plans for each college in the hands of local college administrators and its trustees.

Noting that many students did not enroll because of financial problems, Oakley said that the $2.2 billion in federal stimulus aid approved by Congress in March, half of which is dedicated for students, will help bring students back because they won’t have to “make the difficult decisions about paying their rent or paying for their books to come to our colleges.”

The missing students include those dropping out of college and fewer first-year students enrolling after graduating from high school. The downturn has been steepest among male students, older students, who are often parents, and Black, Latino and Native American students.

An EdSource analysis of fall 2020 head count enrollment data, the most recent available, shows:

Database: California’s community colleges head count changes

The enrollment declines are consistent with national trends. Across the country, community college fall enrollment was down by about 10%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Those trends are dramatically different from the nation’s public four-year universities, where enrollments stayed flat on average. California’s four-year university systems, the University of California and California State University, both saw their overall enrollments increase in the fall, although some CSU campuses showed declines.

Experts worry about enrollment drops in community colleges because they serve more students who are low-income than do the four-year universities.

“The folks that really got hit by this pandemic are from the most vulnerable populations,” said Sunny Cooke, the president of MiraCosta College. “If those people aren’t participating in education, that’s a very bad trend and could be very bad for our state if we don’t keep engaged with our students and keep them moving forward in their education.”

Long road back

Many students dropped their classes because they didn’t have the technology they needed for online learning. Even if they could take classes online, many students didn’t like that environment.

Antonio Solorio, 22, withdrew from his classes at Mt. San Antonio College and started working more hours at his retail job.

Solorio, 22, a deaf studies major, said less one-on-one time with his instructors and technical difficulties were a regular, frustrating part of his college experience. By the fall, he had dropped all of his classes and chose to instead work more hours at his retail job at JCPenney. He’s open to returning if classes return in-person, but he’s also considering enrolling in a for-profit college if doing so could help him advance to a better job.

“My concern is that if the students had a bad experience online, and they don’t have the opportunity to be in person, they’re just going to delay enrolling indefinitely,” Melguizo said.

Ultimately, resuming in-person classes will be key to getting students to return, but it is unclear how many colleges will be fully open in the fall.

Oakley said conditions could change based on infections and vaccine availability. Some colleges that announced they will remain mostly virtual cited worries over spreading the virus if they reopened fully.

At Palomar College in San Diego County, more classes will be offered in person this fall than are currently available face to face. But most courses will likely remain online, according to interim Superintendent Jack Kahn. Kahn said the college wants to be careful not to reopen too quickly because of concerns about vaccine distribution and Covid-19 variants, though he acknowledged that keeping most classes online may stymie enrollment growth.

“I think it is going to be a couple of years before we’re back to where we were,” he said.

For some student parents like Brittany Adnoff, 34, child care has taken priority over classes. Adnoff, an early childhood development student, decided to stop taking classes at Orange Coast College and instead focus on homeschooling her children. Taking classes while her daughters were home proved too challenging.

“I thought it would’ve been easy, but my children are very curious, in the background and asking questions,” Adnoff said.

Many colleges in California’s lightly populated, rural communities have also been hit especially hard.

At Shasta College in rural Northern California, about 25% fewer students enrolled in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. Their enrollment dropped from 9,315 students in fall 2019 to 6,990 students in fall 2020.

In a survey of students at that college last spring, nearly half said they had lost employment, which is likely a main reason many did not return for the fall, said Peter Griggs, a spokesman for the college.

“It’s challenging in a rural environment where you may not have the economic base for students to fall back on,” Griggs said.

Reengaging students

In February, Newsom signed a stimulus package that included $20 million for community colleges to reengage students who have either dropped out of college or are deemed at risk of dropping out.

When that money is distributed among the 116 colleges, it will likely reinforce efforts that have been underway since last summer to connect with those students and encourage them to return.

In some cases, such as at Santa Ana College, colleges have had some success in reengaging students. Santa Ana College’s enrollment plummeted by 34% between fall 2019 and fall 2020, to about 23,000.

Santa Ana staff spent last fall calling students who dropped some or all of their classes during the semester. They also called recent high school graduates who had registered for classes but didn’t end up attending.

Depending on students’ needs, the staff offered to help them register for classes and connect them to support services, such as academic counseling, Wi-Fi support and emergency financial aid awards that were available because of federal stimulus packages.

Of the 8,050 students who were called as part of that campaign, more than half registered for the spring semester, said Vaniethia Hubbard, the vice president of student services at the college.

“It looks like the phone campaign was pretty successful,” she said.

Hubbard said she has encouraged other leaders at the college to prioritize resuming in-person instruction for classes that were most difficult to transition to distance learning. That includes many math and science courses. “We may want to look at ways to bring those classes back sooner,” Hubbard said.

Between July and December of last year, staff at MiraCosta College contacted about 3,000 students who were enrolled in spring 2020 and didn’t return for the fall. They surveyed those students and discovered that some lacked stable housing and reliable internet, while others needed to care for family members, said Sinclaire Tirona, a staff member who helped lead the retention campaign.

Staff members like Tirona would then follow up with each student and send them individualized emails connecting them to support services like financial aid or academic counseling.

“We wanted to check in and make sure that we could connect them to any support or help that they might need,” Tirona said.

Of the 3,000 students that were contacted, 14% or about 420 of them ended up enrolling for the spring semester. Another retention campaign was launched this spring.

At Compton College, which saw an enrollment decline of 21% or about 1,200 students, staff members have reached out to students by phone and have even mailed them postcards. Keith Curry, the president of the college, said one of his top priorities is making sure former students are aware that emergency financial aid is available to enrolled students from federal stimulus aid approved by Congress.

Compton got $6 million from the December stimulus package approved by Congress and expects $11.2 million from the rescue plan passed in March. 

Will students return?

Jesus Villanueva, an automotive technology student at Rio Hondo College in Los Angeles County, was one of 861 continuing students who did not enroll in the fall. He had struggled with distance learning last spring, especially because he didn’t have access to a computer or laptop and had to use his iPad to attend classes. Instead of taking classes, he got a job last fall as an assistant mechanic. He re-enrolled at Rio Hondo this spring because his classes returned to face-to-face instruction.

“I never left with the intent of not coming back,” he said.

Some colleges are trying to entice students to return. At Chaffey College in San Bernardino County, where enrollment declined by about 28% or 6,400 students, administrators are offering more “fast track” programs in the fall, said Laura Hope, Chaffey’s associate superintendent. Students attend class for just eight weeks instead of a full 17-week term and receive the same number of credits.

“It seems like students are willing to sign on for a more compressed experience, maybe because of the volatility in their lives. So we’re leaning into that in the fall, which makes us a bit optimistic,” Hope said.

Melanie Gerner, Abraham Navarro, Taylor Helmes, Iman Palm and Jasmine Nguyen contributed to this story. All the reporters are interns with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps. 

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  1. Elena Torres 6 months ago6 months ago

    Indeed, enough is enough! The best way to re-engage students is to offer in-person instruction, especially for higher-level science classes that require lab. One cannot basically self-teach organic chemistry online. With vaccinations and alternative online options, give students the choice!

  2. Susan Miller 6 months ago6 months ago

    I teach Introduction to Behavioral Science Statistics at Palomar College, a tough class in the best of times but also one that students who want to transfer to 4 year colleges must take (unless they are STEM). I have done an analysis of online learning and math anxiety via Google Forms survey in my class and now have data from over 300 students (from Spring 2020 to the present). The results reflect many of … Read More

    I teach Introduction to Behavioral Science Statistics at Palomar College, a tough class in the best of times but also one that students who want to transfer to 4 year colleges must take (unless they are STEM).

    I have done an analysis of online learning and math anxiety via Google Forms survey in my class and now have data from over 300 students (from Spring 2020 to the present). The results reflect many of the issues highlighted in this article. Students are craving connection to instructors in hands-on courses and many indicate they feel a bit lost or disconnected in an online environment. I think creative approaches to rethinking our use of college spaces is needed.

    As we return to post pandemic conditions, we need to open up more access to tutoring, to instructors in office hours, to hybrid and face to face classes and think more deeply about building communities designed with student retention and success as a goal.

  3. Jenine 6 months ago6 months ago

    Just open schools back up. Enough already. There is no excuse anymore. Teachers were a priority in getting vaccinated first. The social and emotional damage that is happening to our youth can’t be reversed. They are not getting a good education online. SDSU and UC’s are reopening with a much larger student body. My son who attends Mira Costa was never surveyed. I would guess that many students will opt to go out … Read More

    Just open schools back up. Enough already. There is no excuse anymore. Teachers were a priority in getting vaccinated first. The social and emotional damage that is happening to our youth can’t be reversed. They are not getting a good education online.

    SDSU and UC’s are reopening with a much larger student body. My son who attends Mira Costa was never surveyed. I would guess that many students will opt to go out of state for in person learning or just give up entirely. This is outrageous!

  4. Hussam Kashou, PhD 6 months ago6 months ago

    Thank you for the data...  The article says "Likelihood of online classes in the fall could keep students away for another semester." I respectfully disagree because this statement makes the assumption that online classes are the innate problem causing students not to enroll and therefore institutions cannot do anything about enrollment decline except return in-person.  Yes, districts may continue to have low enrollments, but what are we all doing to support online ed., students, and … Read More

    Thank you for the data…  The article says “Likelihood of online classes in the fall could keep students away for another semester.” I respectfully disagree because this statement makes the assumption that online classes are the innate problem causing students not to enroll and therefore institutions cannot do anything about enrollment decline except return in-person.  Yes, districts may continue to have low enrollments, but what are we all doing to support online ed., students, and faculty?  

    There is much more to enrollment management: What services, support, resources, scheduling, infrastructure does a district have in place?  For example, “Many students dropped their classes because they didn’t have the technology they needed for online learning”. We at Long Beach City College gave students the technology, strategically integrated new ones, and supported them. Our fall enrollment only being down -5.8% compared to all the districts around us (with -13% to -33%) is a testament to the work, planning, collaboration, services, resources, support, etc. that LBCC did to remove any barriers that were in our control. 

    The enrollment challenge for districts now isn’t with online ed., rather how are they going to get students to enroll for face-to-face classes and safely back on campus.

  5. David Harris 7 months ago7 months ago

    The simplest way to reengage students is to get them back in classrooms. All post-secondary schools will be open in CA this fall for in-person instruction except the community colleges. This is totally unfair to those students. Everyone will have access to the vaccine by then. Just open up the schools CA!