SARAH BUTRYMOWICZ, PETE D’AMATO, MEREDITH KOLODNER and COLLEEN SHALBY
March 17, 2022
In the spring of 2021, $600 stood between Endele Wilson and his dream of achieving a teaching credential from Long Beach City College.
When he was about 18 units away from completion, he got the bill that stopped him in his tracks. He didn’t qualify for financial aid, he said, because of low grades years ago at another community college. He was confronting $600 in unpaid enrollment fees — and couldn’t register for classes until he settled the balance. Wilson, 47, started taking courses in 2019, a few months before the pandemic hit and just before he lost his job as an elementary school music teacher. He took on multiple jobs as a musician, and an overnight shift at a gas station, to support his eight children.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Wilson recalled. “Even working two jobs, I don’t make enough money to do anything but survive.”
Enrollment at California Community Colleges has plummeted nearly 20% during the pandemic to about 1.3 million students from fall 2019 to fall of 2021, according to state data, leaving campuses worried about their future and potential students with fewer of the opportunities offered by higher education. Pandemic-related hardships have propelled many students to choose jobs over education and online classes have been barriers for low-income students without digital resources.
But new research suggests colleges’ own policies around unpaid balances may also be contributing to the decline while creating lasting financial harm for the institutions and students.
A report published Thursday by the Student Borrower Protection Center, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on student debt, attempts to quantify the scope of this problem. Using data from three California Community College districts and student demographic information, researchers estimate that, from July 2020 to June 2021, some 321,000 community college students accrued a collective $107 million in debt to their campuses.