June 15, 2021

California’s community colleges took a massive hit during the pandemic

Student enrollment in higher education took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an annual…

Student enrollment in higher education took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an annual decrease in undergraduate enrollment by 3.6 percent nationwide.

In California, changes in enrollment at the three state-financed university systems — California State University (CSU), University of California (UC), and California Community College (CCC) — varied greatly. While the CSU and UC systems had slight increases in undergraduate enrollment, the community college system’s enrollment decreased dramatically, according to a recently released study from economists at the UC Santa Cruz.

The California Community College system is the largest higher education system in the U.S., educating 2.1 million students per year at 116 colleges across the state. In contrast, the CSU and UC systems combined educate about 650,000 undergraduate students across 32 campuses.

The study found that in the spring of 2020, community college enrollment fell by over 60,000 students, or 4%, from the spring of 2019. The decline was even larger in the fall. More than 230,000 fewer students enrolled than the previous fall — a 15% decrease.

Due to possible data issues found after the study was published, the researchers believe the reduction may be closer to 12%. Regardless, this is a sizable decrease, especially considering enrollment did not fall at the CSU and UC systems. The CSU system’s enrollment increased by over 2,000 undergraduates or about 1%, and the UC undergraduate enrollment increased by 300 students or 0.1%.

Ordinarily, community college enrollment increases during an economic recession, with students opting to go to school rather than compete for scarce job opportunities. The researchers believe the impact of the COVID-19 recession was different because of students struggling with online learning during the pandemic.

To understand the demographics of those who were less likely to enroll, the researchers looked at changes by race and ethnicity. They found that, while enrollment decreased for students in every major race group, the decline was most pronounced among Black and Hispanic students. Compared to 2019, 17% fewer Black and 16% fewer Hispanic students enrolled in the fall, compared to 13% and 12% fewer White non-Hispanic and Asian students, respectively.

The study also compared enrollment by field of study and found that most fields had large losses. According to the paper, the evidence suggests that the fields with the greatest losses were “fields in which online learning might be inferior (e.g. industrial technologies, teaching aides, art, and police training).”

For the upcoming fall semester, the California Community College System plans to offer a mix of in-person and remote classes. Future changes to this plan will depend on vaccination rates among its students, faculty, and staff. In late April, Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley urged everyone to receive their vaccinations as a step towards resuming in-person classes.