Michael Burke, Daniel J. Willis, EdSource, Debbi Truong, Los Angeles Times
November 18, 2022
Enrollment 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 the harsh pandemic years.
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 not reversed.
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 a point that may force the colleges to re-imagine themselves in ways that jibe with students’ priorities and needs. All at a time when the system has embarked on a search for a new chancellor.
“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.
Community college students tend to skew older than traditional university students and come from lower-income backgrounds. More than 65% are working more than part time, Navarette said.
“We gave [them] a taste of what a flexible, adaptive education meant,” she said. As a result, students “will no longer want something that looks like the education they received before.”
A survey of former California community college students found that one-third haven’t re-enrolled because they’ve prioritized work. At the same time, 22% said they have prioritized taking care of family or other dependents. Another 29% said they struggled to keep up with their classes. The survey was conducted by the RP Group, a nonprofit research center.
The student defections afflicted 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.