California Community College Enrollment Continues to Decline. Here Are Potential Solutions.

As enrollment at community colleges across California keeps dropping, administrators, faculty, and advocates look for new ways to engage students.
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  • Enrollment has decreased across community colleges in California by 18% compared to pre-pandemic counts.
  • Basic needs costs are among the top reasons why students cannot enroll and stay in college.
  • Two ways colleges are trying to increase enrollment: offer dual enrollment programs and provide more resources on campus.

Student enrollment at California Community Colleges (CCC) declined sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as schools have reopened their doors to students, the state's community colleges are struggling to entice students to enroll.

"Nationally, the pandemic has hit community college students especially hard, with enrollment declining at a higher rate than four-year institutions," Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications and marketing for California Community Colleges, told BestColleges in an emailed statement.

"This raises critical concerns about equitable access to and success in higher education as well as the ability to meet workforce needs."

According to Feist, CCC enrollment is down 18% compared to pre-pandemic counts. That equates to around 300,000 students.

The decline was even steeper for transfer-intending students, who make up the largest group of credit college students. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, transfer-intending students saw enrollment decline by 20%, or 150,000 students, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a nonpartisan research organization.

One of the largest factors for declining enrollment was the COVID-19 pandemic, which shifted traditional community classes online and required faculty to try to engage with students in a brand new way.

"During the pandemic, we provided students with a taste of what a flexible, adaptive education meant," Feist said. "Students no longer want something that looks like the education they received before."

Diablo Valley College (DVC) in California's East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area demonstrates the reality of enrollment declines.

Student enrollment at DVC fell 21% from 2018 to 2021, according to English professor Anne Kingsley.

"While the conditions of COVID made it clear that we had lost enrollment, we're now still looking at downward trends," she told BestColleges.

Heidi Goen-Salter, another English professor at DVC, says she noticed the enrollment drop firsthand in her classroom.

"Historically, when the semester begins, the roster is full, and there are anywhere from 3-15 students at the door asking, 'Do you have any more seats, can I get into this class?' That's very much not the case now — the rosters are not even full, or if they are full … they're definitely not overflowing."

Supporting Student Needs

The cost of college and confusing financial aid structures can be barriers to higher education. However, they are not the largest hurdles students face, according to PPIC.

Basic needs costs such as housing, transportation, childcare, and food frequently are the reasons why students cannot enroll and stay in college.

Feist said California Community Colleges has students' needs in mind.

"We're working to meet students' basic needs using state and federal funds including forgiving student debt, covering textbook costs, increasing food pantry hours, delivering food to students, and providing childcare stipends, laptops, hot spots, and emergency housing vouchers."

At DVC, Kingsley and Goen-Salter said they've seen first hand how addressing basic needs security improves outcomes for students.

Goen-Salter emphasized how important campus-provided resources are to students, including DVC's food pantry.

"If students don't have enough food in their bellies and don't have a way to get to and from campus and have their basic needs met, then they can't do this other stuff," she said, "People can't study well if they're hungry. Something as simple as a granola bar can really make a difference."

Basic needs for students also includes access to technology, Kingsley said. During the pandemic, DVC offered free Chromebook loans to students in order to sustain continuity in instruction. She hopes that the success of the program leads to a larger technology loan program through the school.

"Ideally, I'd love to see a more robust technology program. If we are really committed to equity, then we really want to put the right tools into students' hands so they get to experience what it feels like to own the computer of their choice."

Dual enrollment

Another way community colleges are trying to bridge the enrollment gap is through dual enrollment programs.

Dual enrollment allows students to take college courses, taught by college professors, while still in high school. Dual enrollment courses can count toward a student's college degree, accelerating the process to get an associate degree and transfer to a four-year institution.

A University of California, Davis study on dual enrollment in California found that in the 2019-2020 school year, nearly 14% of community college courses in the state had at least one high school student enrolled.

Additionally, the number of high school-only dual enrollment courses more than quadrupled between 2010 and 2020, from 624 to 2,601 courses.

"I think that dual enrollment offers a really good possibility for students to get a taste of the college experience and try different kinds of classes in all sorts of subjects," Kingsley said. "I think it just provides on-ramps into college, where you might otherwise lose students."

Recent legislation also made it possible for students attending a noncredit or adult education high school diploma or equivalency program to enroll in dual enrollment courses in the state.

Feist says that the CCC is focused on dual enrollment, including finding ways to engage populations that aren't traditionally targeted, like adult learners.

"We're focusing on dual enrollment opportunities with K-12 partners as well as with adult school populations to reach older learners," he said. "We've enhanced and targeted outreach and marketing that is culturally competent, which provides colleges with a marginally improved ability to compete with the for-profit sector."

Goen-Salter said that the pandemic made faculty rethink teaching and make adjustments, leaving the door open for new students to learn from a different way of teaching.

"[It] feels like a perfect time to reach the populations that we're not reaching and say, 'Check out community college, you might think this is not for you, but this really could be for you,'" she said. "It seems like a great time to bring in people that haven't been getting served by our institution in the past."