The collapse of community college enrollment: Can California turn it around?

By Mikhail Zinshteyn, Cal Matters

After community college enrollment collapsed in late 2020, California lawmakers gave the public two-year college system $120 million last year to stem the tide of student departures and bring them back.

So far, progress has been uneven. As of last fall, only 17 of California’s 116 community colleges have increased the number of students they enroll since fall 2020. 42 colleges dropped more students in fall 2021 than in fall 2020, according to an analysis of CalMatter’s credential system.

Officials acknowledge that the number of participating students continued to decline systemwide. “The fall 2021 headcount has decreased by about 7% compared to the fall of 2020 and a total of 20% compared to the fall of 2019,” a cratering of more than 300,000 students in these two years, said a March memo from the Chancellery of the California Community College.

While $120 million may be a rounding error in the $47 billion the state has earmarked for higher education in the current fiscal year, it’s still a big chunk of the change.

Gov. Gavin Newsom now wants to send another $150 million to community colleges to further increase their re-enrollment efforts.

The expected return on investment is unclear.

While colleges received $20 million to boost reenrollment in March last year — well before the start of the fall semester — the remaining $100 million didn’t reach colleges until mid-September at the earliest, a few weeks after almost all colleges had started their fall semesters . While most government college grants are annual, this money was one-off.

That means most of the money’s impact is yet to be measured. The impact of the overall package on spring student enrollments is also unknown, as colleges don’t report enrollments until around July.

Also, the public will never really know how colleges spend that money: The legislature and governor last year didn’t include reporting requirements for colleges to show how they use reenrollment dollars.

The chancellery of community colleges supports Newsom’s plan for re-enrolment funds but in his budget proposal last year sought $20 million in annual support, not $150 million one-off.

Enrollment in general

Early indications are that the $120 million in re-enrollment has made a difference in stabilizing the student population on campus, but other factors are also driving more students coming back or keeping them from dropping out of college . Offering more in-person courses played a role, several college administrators said, as did billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds for students and colleges.

Much of the enrollment losses are beyond the control of colleges. The job market is currently sizzling, and rampant labor shortages are causing employers to pay well above minimum wage for positions that don’t typically require college education. Historically, community college enrollment swells during economic downturns when employers are more selective, favoring college-educated applicants. But enrollment falls when the economy is hot because adults don’t see education as an instant ticket to employment.

California’s overall community college system probably won’t return to fall 2019 enrollment numbers for two or three years, said John Hetts, a senior chancellery officer who oversees enrollment.

Colleges have to work harder to keep their student numbers stable. The public K-12 system is projected to will shrink by almost 600,000 students in eight years. total population of California is stagnating or declining slightly. Enrollment growth needs to come from more adults who aren’t recent high school graduates — including the roughly 3 million 25-54 year-olds who are already have college but no degree — and the college’s efforts to retain a larger proportion of its existing students, Hetts said.

Helper in financial aid

Rio Hondo College, in the eastern LA County suburb, has seen its student enrollment increase from 16,292 to 16,370 since the fall of 2020. That’s still significantly less than the more than 21,000 enrolled in fall 2019, but it’s one of the very few community colleges to have even grown over the past year.

Registering students for financial aid has been key, Rio Hondo officials said.

The college used $200,000 of its $1.2 million in re-enrollment funds to hire 10 part-time staff to mentor students through applications for federal and state financial aid. All of this money came from last year’s smaller March allocation of re-enrollment funding.

The goal early last fall was to increase the number of new and current students applying for financial aid by 5%, a goal the school has met, said Earic Dixon-Peters, vice president of student services at the college. With state or federal dollars in hand, more students stay in school.

Rio Hondo is also providing $4 million in federal COVID-19 relief to forgive student campus debt, such as from unpaid tuition. Before the pandemic, if a student owed the campus an amount of money, they could not register for classes. Students with outstanding balances can now register. To date, 4,000 students have accepted the college as a result of this offer, which has resulted in $1.7 million in tuition waivers, said Stephen Kibui, vice president of finance at Rio Hondo.

Switch to personal help

At Santa Barbara City College, fall 2021 enrollment increased to 13,855 students, compared to 13,664 the previous year, still down from fall 2019’s 14,874.

But the college’s $1.2 million share of the state re-enrollment funds had nothing to do with it. The college pushed back the first installment in March to this fiscal year. And the remaining $1 million? “We didn’t even know about it until October,” said Kindred Murillo, the college’s interim president. Fall classes in Santa Barbara began August 23rd.

Are you helping to fuel the enrollment surge? More face-to-face classes, Murillo said. As of fall 2021, about 70% of instruction was online, compared to about 88% in fall 2020. Before the pandemic, about 17% of college instruction was online.

The lost students were “the students who did really well in the face-to-face class and struggled in the online program,” Murillo said. The college’s push for more face-to-face instruction included a focus on non-credit courses, such as B. English courses, said Murillo. Students in these courses are less likely to be able to take online courses, either due to insufficient internet and computer access or language barriers.

State re-enrollment funds help boost enrollment in the spring, Murillo said. The college used part of the money for a re-enrollment event in December that brought 150 students back for the spring. Students appreciate that 50 percent of the college’s courses are in-person, Murillo said. The college is also using some of the state funds to distribute $500 toward student selection to cover books and other school supplies.

Lonely idyll, rural university perspective

The College of the Siskiyous, the state’s northernmost community college and located an hour from the Oregon border, also saw a slight increase in student enrollment last fall. Among students in creditworthy classes, enrollment increased to 1,400 from around 1,300, a campus administrator said. That’s still fewer than the 1,800 enrolled in creditable programs in the fall of 2019.

The college has so far used about $36,000 of its re-enrollment money to print and mail class schedules to its service area — about the size of Rhode Island. Administrators figured that sending physical copies of the course schedule would reach prospective students in the rural north who either didn’t have reliable internet or weren’t used to online content. “That may have contributed to some of our enrollment growth,” said Char Perlas, the college’s interim superintendent/president.

It also plans to use much of its roughly $400,000 in re-enrollment and retention funds as a down payment for a three-person counseling department, though the college must find other, ongoing sources of funds to foot the bill.

But because the college is so isolated, it’s struggling to hire faculty, an ongoing problem that likely prevents the campus from enrolling more students. For example, the college has an engineering degree, but there are semesters when it doesn’t offer engineering courses, administrators said.

Re-enrollment successful

However, it’s likely more than just printed schedules or outreach, it’s likely just a consistent return to in-person learning that will boost enrollment.

Expanded in-person learning and COVID-19 safety precautions drew back Selena Johnson, a musical theater student. Before the pandemic cut short the 2020 spring semester, Johnson was taking full-time courses. But the next 18 months of online classes were a struggle.

“It’s been really hard going from the excitement of touring across the state — and being able to have that energy when we meet and study together — to complete isolation,” Johnson said.

She left school last fall to work, unsure if she would ever graduate. But the college’s commitment to COVID-19 safety precautions and the return of in-person choral instruction brought her back to the school part-time this spring.

It’s a pace that works for her, and if she takes two courses next fall and two more in the spring after that, she can graduate before the summer of 2023.

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