by Jim Miller
AFT, Vice President
Community Colleges are facing an enrollment crisis nationally with California’s decline unfortunately leading the way. According to a report by the American Association of Community Colleges , “Community college enrollment has been in decline nationally since peaking in 2010” and, importantly, “the full-time enrollment has been decreasing even faster than the part-time enrollment, meaning the FTE enrollments (what many community colleges are funded on) is decreasing faster than total headcount enrollment.”
As we all know this larger national trend was greatly exacerbated by the pandemic as trauma, economic difficulties, mental health issues, and other crises particularly relevant to our traditional student population took a steep toll.
Here in California, CalMatters noted last Spring that,
After community college enrollment collapsed in late 2020, California lawmakers last year gave the system of public two-year colleges $120 million to help stem the tide of departing students and bring them back.
So far, progress has been uneven. Through last fall, just 17 of California’s 116 community colleges have seen the number of students they enroll grow since fall of 2020. At 42 colleges, more students left in the fall of 2021 than in fall of 2020, according to a CalMatters analysis of system enrollment data.
Officials acknowledge that the number of students attending continued to sag systemwide. “Fall 2021 headcount is down approximately 7% from fall 2020 and down 20% overall compared to fall 2019,” a cratering of more than 300,000 students over those two years, said a March memo from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
As we head into the Fall semester, the numbers are still flat at best with a significant portion of our traditional student base still not returning. As a subsequent CalMatters piece observed,
“People from lower-income families and people of color are at a higher risk of not being able to attend college, or having to drop out, for a number of reasons including caregiving responsibilities, obligations to work, and trouble accessing the technology they need.”
A City College of San Francisco student profiled in that same piece is surely representative of many of the students we have lost who were alienated by online options:
[H]e learned that all of his classes would be held online in an asynchronous format. He would only interact with professors and students through Google classroom. “I felt like that was some serious bullshit,” he said. “Like I’m going to college to fill out paperwork? Are you kidding me? I want to talk to people, say hi to people. I want to see faces.” The lack of in-person interactions made the decision not to attend City College an easy one.
Thus, while it is clear that the expansion of community college online course offerings is here to stay and that the convenience of these classes is quite popular with many of our students, it is also evident that those sections have not done enough to rebuild our enrollments to pre-pandemic levels and are also not reaching the students we are most likely to have lost. Further, several studies have documented that K-12 students suffered large learning losses due to online and remote learning, which has alienated many of them from school. Community college students are not so different than their younger colleagues in this regard, and as the quote above demonstrates, many are difficult to reach because they’ve simply given up on higher and inadequate (in their eyes) education.
Thus, as we head toward the end of “hold harmless” budgeting in California, it is essential that we do everything we can to bring back a robust on-campus program, or the long-term consequences for our institutions will be dire. Of course, many of the economic and social factors that have helped create this crisis are out of our control, but we can, at the very least, do everything possible to restore the vital face-to-face teaching, social interactions, and on campus experiences that put the “community” in community colleges.
This may mean tolerating less “efficiency” and “productivity” numbers and keeping lower enrolled face-to-face classes going as we make our way through the next several years, which is about the length of time most informed observers of college enrollment trends think it will take. If not, we may be inadvertently hollowing out our institutions in a way that makes them vulnerable to long-term decline.
In sum, what we are confronted with at present is one of the biggest challenges our community college system has ever faced. Patience for rebuilding with an eye for what really matters in education, particularly for working class students of color, will be a necessity if we are going to get out of what could be an existential crisis over the long haul.
We all know that our colleges, at their best, are beloved communities for us all. Let’s do what we can to keep them that way.