California's Community Colleges: At a Crossroads

Why students are not attending California’s community colleges

April 12, 2021

Brittany Adnoff, 34, an early childhood development student at Orange Coast Community College, says that she was in “survival mode” by the end of the fall 2020 semester and decided not to enroll for the spring semester. She plans to return for the spring intersession or summer semester.

Behind the enrollment drops across California’s community colleges during the pandemic are 260,000 students with a variety of reasons for leaving or not enrolling in college last fall.  Some delayed college to care for children and family members. Others had to take jobs or add hours to support their families. Some dropped out of courses in frustration after encountering problems logging into online courses. While others blamed the forced, chaotic transition to online learning or the inability to deal with learning disabilities during distance learning.

Here’s how five students wrestled with the dilemma of whether to attend or stay in college during the pandemic. While they all made initial plans to return, only two of the five have done so.

Brittany Adnoff

The pandemic forced Brittany Adnoff to make an impossible choice: continue pursuing her college education, or devote her time to making sure her daughters, age 8 and 9, made the transition from public school to home schooling as well as possible.

After two and a half years and 50 units at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Adnoff, 34, suddenly and unofficially quit attending school. She put the well-being of her daughters before her own, including her aspirations to major in early childhood development and earn a preschool teacher certificate.

“The mom guilt was the biggest challenge for me,” Adnoff said. “Trying to do my schoolwork with the kids at home with their own schoolwork, it was just too much for me to handle.”

The pandemic pushed her daughters, who are in 3rd and 4th grade classes, into virtual learning. Then in the summer of 2020, Adnoff learned that the Newport-Mesa school district would be returning to in-person classes. Since she was not convinced it was safe to return to public elementary school, Adnoff decided she would home-school her kids and needed time to set everything up. Now with a school routine set in place, Adnoff is returning to OCC during the spring intersession for an adult supervision class.

Adnoff says the stakes are high for her since she is pursuing higher education in an effort to find a more rewarding career and to be able to provide more for her family. If she could finish college she would join her older brother in being among the first in her family to do so.

It has been her dream to have a career in early childhood education since 2018, following more than a decade of part-time house cleaning, bartending, restaurant server jobs and working in a linen warehouse.

No one from OCC contacted Adnoff, and she never informed the college about her decision to take a break to care for her children. Adnoff said that she does not think any outreach from the school would change her decision.

“I think this is something I need to figure out on my own, it’s my internal battle of juggling life,” Adnoff said. “I was just giving little pieces of myself to school and my family, I felt like I wasn’t giving 100 percent to anything.”

Adnoff was not comfortable sending her two young daughters to public elementary school with COVID-19 restrictions and was especially concerned about her kids wearing a mask.

“I am not a fan of children wearing masks every day,” Adnoff said. “I am not sure what the long-term side effects are going to be, so I am a little hesitant about that.”

At first the virtual environment was a welcomed change. Adnoff figured she would avoid commuting and be able to spend more time on her college education. With her kids home, however, Adnoff no longer had the six-hour blocks of time alone when her kids went to school in person to complete her child development homework and attend virtual class meetings.

“I thought it would’ve been easy, but my children are very curious, in the background and asking questions,” Adnoff said. “I didn’t realize how much I needed to be in person and how that was something I did for myself, not only for learning, but also to have a little part of me outside of my home.”

Adnoff’s new employers at the Sunshine Enrichment Cooperative have encouraged her to go beyond her current permit as a preschool teacher. Instead of earning a certificate in preschool education, Adnoff now plans to pursue a child development site supervisor permit to become a child development program director.

Adnoff must still complete an additional 10 classes at OCC to reach her goal of a child development site supervisor permit. Adnoff’s overall plan is to return to school slowly, one class at a time, including possibly taking a guitar class in summer.

“When I had kids, I wanted to work at a school where my kids could be in my classroom and I thought that doesn’t exist,” Adnoff said. “I have all that with my new job, it’s awesome.”

Steven Quezada

Steven Quezada dreams of running his own restaurant one day. His first plan was to pursue a certificate in culinary arts and an associate degree in business management to better prepare himself for long-term success. Mt. San Antonio College was part of that plan.

Courtesy of Steven Quezada

Steven Quezada wants to return to Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut to earn a degree that will help him open and manage his own restaurant one day. His college plans are on hold while he earns a living as a cook at a pizzeria.

When Covid-19 began to lay its claim in Los Angeles County, Mt. SAC, located in Walnut, east of Los Angeles, shut down it’s 60,000+ student campus and sent them all home to begin virtual learning. This made college incredibly difficult for Quezada and led to his second exit from college.

Nothing about college life has been easy for Quezada, who has struggled his entire career with attention deficit hyper disorder, after he was diagnosed as a child. He also attended Citrus College in Los Angeles County, but left in 2014 after earning a slew of bad grades. “After high school, I was not ready for college,” Quezada said. “I was thinking only about cars and girls. That was my downfall.”

Unable to overcome his disability, he would often find himself sidetracked. “I get caught in distraction mode. I’d be in my room and instead of doing my work I’d just listen to music or do something for a family member,” Quezada said.

On campus, Quezada said that he had easy access to disability services, office hours and tutoring. When the college moved to distance learning, he found himself without these resources, and he was unable to maintain a proper focus on schoolwork.

This ruined his educational plans, Quezada said, and in spring 2020 he dropped out of Mt. SAC after attending for nearly eight years.

As the pandemic progressed, Quezada became worried that attending online school would make him unable to work enough hours to support his family who increasingly relied on him, at just 26, to earn cash and help out with expenses, from groceries to energy bills to internet service.

“I would sit there, and I would just go blank,” he said about his attempts to focus during lectures. “Probably thinking if my parents or brothers would have food on the table.”

Among his family responsibilities was to drive 100 miles each way to get crucial supplies, which were running out during the onset of the pandemic.

“We’d drive all the way to Palm Springs just to go get water,” Quezada said. “Or all the way to Yucca Valley to just go get toilet paper or meat.”

Quezada admits that he did not officially disenroll from his courses, and that he received no contact from the college after he dropped his classes. Now he says that he would have preferred that college officials would have “asked if they can help me with tutoring or anything else.”

That much-needed support is something he misses.

Quezada works as a cook at a pizzeria in Montclair; 20 miles from his home in La Puente, earning about $15 an hour.

“I would like to be in class and learning,” he said, “instead of working 10 or 11 hours a day cooking and washing dishes.”

For now, he is content to support his family.

However, Quezada doesn’t consider himself a college dropout and vows that he will return. “I would rather be back in school. I want to see if I have an opportunity in life, if I have a chance in life,” he said. “I’m not a college dropout. I do want to go back.”

Antonio Solorio

Antonio Solorio began taking classes at Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California the summer after his high school graduation in 2017. But once the Covid-19 pandemic began claiming large numbers of victims and forced people to shelter in place, he lost motivation for school and began dedicating more time and effort toward his cashier’s job at a JCPenney store in West Covina.

Photo by Abraham Navarro

Antonio Solorio, center, knows that whether he finishes college or not, his younger siblings, Freddy, left, and Angel, look up to him as much as he looks to them for academic success and motivation.

He is now a potential college dropout, contemplating holding off on his dreams of earning a degree in deaf studies in order to keep the retail job he has now that could lead to a different career path. Another option is to skip community college altogether and explore a trade school.

The last class Solorio took at Mt. SAC was a critical thinking and writing English class in fall 2020, but one day he decided to simply stop showing up halfway through the semester.

“I woke up and said, ‘Alright, I will stop going to class right now, I’ll just continue working and maybe after everything settles down, when Covid goes away or until we can get to a situation where we can be in-person in class,” Solorio said. “Then I’ll go back to studying.”

Even before the pandemic, Solorio says that he was already feeling lost and questioning which academic pathway to take, deciding between which associate degree or certificate to earn, and whether continuing his education in a virtual environment was worth his time or not. But Solorio pushed through the uncertain feelings he had before the pandemic and wanted to try online classes so that all his previous work and studying in the years prior didn’t go to waste.

“With the online classes, I couldn’t get used to it,” he said. “I couldn’t really acclimate to it and instead of motivating me to keep going, it kind of made me feel like I just can’t do this.”

So, one day in the fall, Solorio woke up and felt like he couldn’t continue with the virtual format of classes, technical difficulties and lack of connection with his professors and peers. He stopped attending class, withdrew from the courses he was enrolled in and used the extra time he would normally spend on school to focus on his work at JCPenney. Solorio says nothing will convince him to return to campus until in-person classes resume.

Solorio still plans on earning an associate degree for transfer in communication studies, then plans on transferring to California State University, Northridge, to study and earn a bachelor’s degree in deaf studies. His interest in American Sign Language first sparked in a high school class. No one in his family is deaf, and he is the first in his family to learn sign language. His academic interest lies squarely in learning about history, linguistics and inequities surrounding deaf studies and the deaf community. Although he is not attending college anymore, he finds himself using sign language at work.

“Sometimes deaf people come in, and it’s nice to see when you cheer someone up because you know how to communicate with them, like they found someone they can trust and rely on,” Solorio said. “So that’s what I’ve always wanted. I always want to feel helpful.”

Ever since Solorio put community college on hold, he has been able to help his family pay rent, as well as electricity, water and phone bills. He also now pays for his own car insurance. He says that he appreciates being able to help out his family financially. That sense of responsibility now competes with his initial longer term plan to earn a college degree and find a higher paying job post-graduation.

Solorio has two younger brothers, Freddy and Angel, and he feels pressure to be a role model for both of them. Freddy, the middle brother, currently plans on attending Mt. SAC after he graduates from high school and aspires to travel the world and work in journalism or photography. Solorio doesn’t want his younger brother to look at his experience and lose the motivation to attend community college.

“Even though I’m not going to school right now, I tell them this is the challenge: ‘You go to school. You get a better job than me,’” Solorio said. “They’re really more into school than I am. It’s like school is meant for them, but not me.”

Since elementary school, Solorio noticed how his younger brothers picked up on their academics and earned higher grades while he barely managed to pass his classes.

“I see how they’re progressing, they focus on their schoolwork,” Solorio said. “They go out with friends, yes, but mainly they work on homework and projects, helping each other out. They just seem to be focused. I don’t consider school is meant for me because I feel like I struggle a lot with my grades, even though I give it my all.”

Solorio would’ve been the first to go to college in his family and graduate with an associate’s degree. But because of the pandemic and his distaste for distance learning, he’s thought about looking into trade schools to earn a certificate — in much less time that it would take to earn a degree — and learn a marketable job skill, such as operating diesel trucks or becoming an information technologist.

“Plan A is to go back to Mt. SAC, mainly because that’s where I started. I feel like it’d be the proper way to finish,” Solorio said.

Plan B, Solorio says, is to work a small career job, like what he is doing right now at JCPenney. Plan C is to go to a trade school. When he’s on YouTube, commercials and ads pop up that pique his interest, causing him to think, “I might try that, but I’m not sure.”

While studying at Mt. SAC, Solorio said that he did seek guidance from academic counselors, who mostly helped by showing him degree pathways and requirements to help him choose the classes he would need to graduate. He volunteered as a peer mentor for a campus club called DREAMers, which aids undocumented students in their pursuit of a degree. However, in the end he still chose to trade his college degree for a real job.

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

Kaila Cash

After the pandemic forced universities and colleges across the state to continue instruction virtually, Kaila Cash found it difficult to keep up with her studies at El Camino College in Torrance.

Cash said she tried to stay on top of her studies for the first two weeks of virtual instruction during the spring 2020 semester, but then had to give up.

Courtesy of Kaila Cash

Kaila Cash, 21, left school after attending El Camino College for a semester and a half because she did not do well with distance learning. She is now considering re-enrolling for the upcoming fall semester to become a salon stylist.

“Keeping up with my studies and having to get up and go to school even though I’m not at school was difficult,” Cash said. She found it increasingly difficult to maintain her motivation for staying in college because she was not on campus mingling with professors and fellow students. She was stuck in shelter in place, which felt more like prison than college. Cash, 21, describes herself as a “hands-on” learner, which means that she performs better in school when she has in-person instruction. Otherwise, she finds it difficult to concentrate on her assignments.

During the fall 2019 semester, she enrolled to be a cosmetology major. She only spent a semester and a half on campus before the pandemic altered her education plans.

“The semester I was at El Camino, I was actually doing good,” said Cash. “Then the pandemic started. We stopped going to class, and then I stopped trying to do the work. I ended up on academic probation.”

Before virtual learning began, Cash had close to a 3.0 GPA. When the college transitioned to distanced learning, she was enrolled in three classes and failed all of them.

Cash had actually started college after high school in 2017 at California State University, Dominguez Hills, but had trouble adjusting in her first year and was derailed after her grandmother died in her second year. Cash withdrew and continued her education at El Camino College.

Even though she has taken three consecutive semesters off, Cash still wants to re-enroll as a business major for next fall even if El Camino is continuing with virtual learning. “I would just have to suck it up,” Cash said.

No one from El Camino College has reached out to her about possibly re-enrolling, but Cash didn’t inform the college she gave up attending classes.

She hopes for a cosmetology career as a stylist. Her plan now is to attend El Camino for two years, transfer back to CSU Dominguez Hills to earn a bachelor’s degree in business. After that, she wants to enroll in a cosmetology school.

Should her plans work out, Cash would be the first person from her household with a college degree. Cash said that she was never a school person and only pursued a college degree because her family encouraged her to do so.

“I just went with the flow of things, not really caring,” said Cash. “But I’m going back to school for myself.”

Jesus Villanueva

Jesus Villanueva has never liked sitting in front of a computer, still he never doubted that he wanted to go to college. The 22-year-old is the first to pursue a degree in his family and started attending Rio Hondo College in 2016 with the goal of transferring to a four-year university to become a teacher. However, since then, he has taken an interest in earning an automotive technology degree offered at Rio Hondo.

Courtesy of Jesus Villanueva

Jesus Villanueva, 22, says that he appreciates his new full-time job as a mechanic’s assistant helped him buy a new computer and other necessities, but the extra cash did not deter his return to Rio Hondo College this semester.

Villanueva attended the program until fall 2020 when the pandemic led the college to move to virtual learning. He dropped out because he found himself no longer working in person with professors and fellow students, but rather stuck in his room behind a computer and struggling to maintain focus.

He promised himself he would return, hopefully in the spring, once his campus returned to in-person classes.

“After two sessions of online classes, it wasn’t really working out,” Villanueva said. “It was just really annoying having to deal with stuff that I can’t control like Zoom servers not working properly.”

Plus, Villanueva only had access to an iPad to attend his classes, which made it difficult to follow along if the teacher needed more than one window open, especially in a program like automotive technology where classes were filled with participation from students.

He did not notify the college or any counselors that he was dropping out because he figured his departure was temporary.

“I don’t want to deal with this for another semester,” he said, “It doesn’t look like we’re going to go back next semester. So I’m just going to cut my losses and wait until next year.”

In a program like his, where most of his classes focused on how to use automotive tools like a digital multimeter, which records current and voltage of a car’s electrical system, Villanueva felt that attending classes through his iPad would not be an efficient way to learn.

Once he left school, Villanueva took a full-time job as an assistant mechanic in the fleet maintenance department at an Anaheim paving company. He says that he feels fortunate that his job is somewhat in the field he wanted to pursue, because the experience will pay off when he is able to return to college.

Also, he quickly found that he missed taking his college classes, particularly because most of his duties consists of grunt work like making sure things are organized at the shop, unloading and loading equipment and occasionally doing repairs on the trucks and equipment.

“It was just a lot less of the mechanical and technical work on actual machines,” Villanueva said. “It was more just go clean this or go clean that or go take this apart.”

Villanueva said that even though he was not enrolled last semester, he appreciated that he still received automated “check-in” email messages from the college.

“I had some counselors reach out to me, and I responded back. I felt like they really did try their best to reach out to their students.”

He returned to Rio Hondo this semester after officials announced the college would be rolling out a hybrid learning system, which would mean some classes would be resuming in person. Villanueva was happy to learn that the class he wanted to take was on the list, Automotive Electrical Tools & Diagnostics. With the money he earned, he bought himself a desktop computer.  “So now I have the proper resources available to me to do my work efficiently.”

Villanueva added: “I never left with the intent of not coming back. I just left because I didn’t think it was right for me at the time to go.”


This story was reported and written by the following college journalism students who are interns with EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps: Melanie Gerner, Taylor Helmes, and Jasmine Nguyen, seniors, California State University, Dominguez Hills; Abraham Navarro, third-year student, Mt. San Antonio College; Iman Palm, senior, California State University, Long Beach.

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