【《We Chinese in AmericaMedia Editor Tang Zhao, November 24, 2022Enrollment at California’s community colleges has dropped to its lowest level in 30 years, new data show. The stark decline has educators scrambling to find ways to meet the changing needs of students, who may be questioning the value of higher education as they emerge from harsh pandemic years.(Photo credit: California Community Colleges)

Since pre-pandemic 2019, the 115 campuses have collectively lost about 300,000 students, an alarming 18% drop that portends significant enrollment-based funding cuts if enrollment does not increase.

That uncertainty has put the financial viability of some colleges at risk. But the crush of pandemic-fueled changes has also pushed the system to an inflection point, which may force the colleges to reimagine themselves in ways that jibe with students’ priorities and needs. “What we’ve seen is that higher education as a whole has been disrupted forever,” interim Deputy Chancellor Lizette Navarette told a state Assembly hearing this week.

“We gave [students] a taste of what a flexible adaptive education meant” during the pandemic, she said. Now they “no longer want something that looks like the education they received before.”

The enrollment crash

Unlike during the Great Recession, community college enrollment dropped sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of former California community college students found that one third haven’t re-enrolled because they prioritized work, and 22% prioritized taking care of family or other dependents. Another 29% said they struggled to keep up with their classes, according to the nonprofit research center RP Group.

Changes in enrollment were felt unevenly across the system

Between fall 2019 and fall 2021 community college enrollment dropped 18 percent systemwide.The student defections affected the entire system, from small colleges serving rural northern California hamlets to bustling urban campuses in southern California. The college with the largest percentage loss statewide was College of the Siskiyous in the far north of the state; it experienced a 44% drop, from 3,371 to 1,882 students.
But some of the steepest declines were among the nine campuses in the Los Angeles Community College District, which lost 28% of its total enrollment. Los Angeles Southwest College led the pack, with a 32% drop. And East Los Angeles College, which had the highest enrollment in the state, lost 22% of its 40,000 students between the fall of 2019 and 2021.
Facing a fiscal cliff
While community colleges are funded largely based on enrollment, those rules have been suspended and they won’t feel the pinch of the loss until 2025. Their cushion comes from pandemic relief funds. But if colleges don’t rebound quickly enough, they may be faced with faculty layoffs and service cuts, said Tatiana Melguizo, professor of higher education at the University of Southern California.

“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” Melguizo said. But if the decline continues or enrollment stays flat, “that will be really bad.”

At West Los Angeles College, enrollment dropped nearly 28%, from 13,941 in fall 2019 to 10,061 in spring 2021. Jim Limbaugh, the college’s president, said many students were enticed by employers who boosted wages to attract employees amid worker shortages during the pandemic. “When you have the opportunity to make over $20 an hour out in the community, they’re going to put college on the back burner,” he said.

Now the college is bolstering its most popular programs — including aviation technology, film and television production, dental hygiene and climate studies — and enrollment has increased by 6% this fall. “The pandemic has changed college,” Limbaugh said. “What we were doing before is not necessarily going to be the best thing for the students coming out of the pandemic.”

Looking to high schoolers

In their search for new bodies, college presidents are scouring local high schools for students willing to enroll in community college courses. They see that kind of dual enrollment as an opportunity for sustained growth, since those students are likely to remain enrolled after they get their high school diplomas.

In fact, since 2015 the only statewide enrollment increases in California’s community college system can be attributed to dual enrollment, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University. That aligns with national trends. Across the country, an 11.5% increase in high schoolers taking college courses helped soften community colleges’ enrollment drop.

Losing so many students is a harbinger of bad news for the 23-campus California State University system as well, because about half of undergraduate enrollment is made up of community college transfers. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, community college enrollment of transfer-intending students was down 20%. That cost CSU an estimated 12,000 students between fall 2020 and fall 2022. And the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses admitted about 11% fewer community college transfers this fall than a year ago.

The declines “may have set California’s higher education system back” by limiting its ability to “promote economic mobility among historically underrepresented students,” according to a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

(Source: Los Angeles Times)

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