Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource

While California is accustomed to earthquakes and has prepared for the Big One for decades, the state was caught off guard by the pandemic quake that shook our state in March 2020. Though the government’s response was swift and well-funded, one of the state’s most vital institutions — community colleges — are still recovering.

Enrollment in California’s two-year colleges fell by more than 300,000 the past two years. A disproportionate number who left were low-income students of color. These departures worsened an already low percentage of those students who earn an AA degree or career education credential.

Prior to Covid, the community colleges made progress on completion rates and closing equity gaps. A new Vision for Success and funding formula rewarded colleges that increased the number of students who earned a degree or certificate in a timely manner, or improved results for disadvantaged students and regions of the state with low college achievement.

When the coronavirus shut down in-person classes, however, California Community Colleges (CCC) were ill equipped to adapt to the new environment.

Since 2014, the state provided funding to colleges that offered online classes to students statewide. By spring 2020, a majority of colleges participated, but relatively few courses were offered. The colleges and faculty made a heroic effort to transition immediately to online classes, but lack of expertise and preparation caused major disruptions.

Research undertaken early in the pandemic indicates that students who were least prepared for college struggled with the transition. Some lacked reliable internet access and computers. Others simply couldn’t adapt to the unfamiliar online format or missed the in-person interactions on campus.

Two years later, colleges have greatly improved their online offerings. State and federal investments in broadband for low-income and rural areas are helping, as well. A PPIC study found low-income internet access increased from 60% to 70% in California from Spring 2020 to Spring 2021, but 41% still lacked full access to both the internet and a device for educational purposes.

To ensure continued progress, the new state and federal funding must ensure that low-income households have broadband access and the means to pay for internet service.

More broadly, the Covid earthquake has permanently fractured the landscape of American society. Many middle and upper income people are working from home, while others, often people of color, continue to perform lower wage in-person jobs.

While the sudden transition to online education was challenging for community college students, it also creates new opportunities, especially for those employed outside the home. Their work, family obligations or health issues can limit their ability to visit campus regularly. The cost of child care, travel and parking may exacerbate their precarious financial situation.

In fact, a Fall 2021 survey by the Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office found that fewer than a quarter of students of all ethnicities preferred only in-person classes. A majority desired hybrid options and roughly 28 percent wanted all online classes.

Moreover, the Chancellor’s Office reports that some older students have taken more units since online classes became widely available and are completing their studies faster.

To accelerate this progress, online courses must be engaging and easily accessible, with opportunities to interact directly with professors and students in class. Counseling and health services should be modernized to ensure that online students have equal access.

The Universities of California and Cal State Universities could also be part of the solution by offering more online degrees. Many are at capacity and reject qualified community college graduates. The number of transfers denied admission to CSU quintupled from 2009 to 2019.

Even with funding to expand UC and CSU enrollment in the governor’s new budget revision, many community college students who prefer to attend a university near their home will be turned away.

Meanwhile, competitors have swept in, with Western Governors, Arizona State and others offering transfers easy access to respectable online bachelor’s degree programs. Community colleges welcome institutions that provide more options for their graduates, but California’s universities are missing an opportunity to educate more students without costly facility investments.

More ominously, for-profit colleges aggressively target transfer students in California, often leaving them with significant debt and a degree of dubious value, if they earn a degree at all.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget revision wisely provides $125 million in annual funding to improve the capacity of community colleges for online instruction, plus $750 million in block grants and $100 million for technology infrastructure.

The table is set for colleges to capitalize on the current revenue boom and ensure students who prefer online classes have easy access to the technology, effective curriculum and assistance they need to succeed. It’s time to act now, before the next Big One hits.


Tom Epstein is a member and past president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. This commentary reflects his personal opinion, not the official position of the Board.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Terry Givens 12 months ago12 months ago

    Very interesting article. Many of our students at Butte College are hoping for more online classes but our WIFI (broadband is still very limited in rural areas and other options are cost prohibitive) is still very limiTied to have successful online classes. I hope the governor is serious about helping students with hot spots to make online successful.

    I personally think if online is not successful as gas prices will price out many students along with us adjunct instructors.