Sacramento City College
Students walk through the Sacramento City College campus on Feb. 23, 2022. Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

After community college enrollment collapsed in late 2020, California lawmakers last year gave the two-year public college system $120 million to help stem the tide of students leaving and to bring back.

So far, progress has been uneven. Until last fall, only 17 of California’s 116 community colleges saw the number of students they enroll increase since fall 2020. At 42 colleges, more students left in fall 2021 than in the fall of 2020, according to a CalMatters analysis of the system’s registration data.

Officials acknowledge that student attendance has continued to decline across the system. “Fall 2021 enrollment is down about 7% from fall 2020 and down 20% overall from fall 2019,” a crater of more than 300,000 students during these two years, said a memo from march from the office of the Chancellor of California Community Colleges.

While $120 million may be a rounding error in the state’s $47 billion commitment to higher education for the current budget year, it’s still a change. important.

Governor Gavin Newsom now wants to send an additional $150 million to community colleges to further bolster their re-enrollment efforts.

The expected return on investment is unclear.

While colleges received $20 million to boost re-enrollment in March of last year — well before the start of the fall term — the remaining $100 million didn’t reach colleges until mid- September at the earliest, several weeks after almost all colleges have started their fall semesters. Although most state financial aid for higher education is annual, this money was one-time.

This means that most of the impact of silver cannot yet be measured. The full package’s effect on student enrollment for the spring is also unknown, as colleges don’t report their student numbers until around July.

The public will never really know how colleges spend that money: Lawmakers and the governor last year included no reporting requirements for colleges to show how they use re-enrollment dollars.

Office of the Community Colleges Chancellor backs Newsom’s plan for re-enrollment money but in its budget request last year asked for $20 million in annual support, not $150 million all at once.

Registration overview

Early signs suggest that the $120 million for re-enrollment has made a difference in stabilizing campus student populations, but other factors are also responsible for more students returning or preventing them from attending. to leave. Offering more in-person classes played a part, several college administrators said, as did billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 aid for students and colleges.

Much of the enrollment loss is beyond the control of colleges. The job market is booming, with rampant labor shortages pushing employers to pay well above minimum wage for positions that typically don’t require a college education. Historically, community college enrollment increases during economic downturns when employers are more selective, rewarding applicants with college degrees. But enrollment drops when the economy is hot because adults don’t see education as an immediate ticket to gainful employment.

The entire California community college system likely won’t return to its fall 2019 enrollment levels for another two or three years, said John Hetts, a visiting executive in the chancellor’s office who oversees enrollment.

Colleges will need to redouble their efforts to maintain stability in their student population. The public K-12 system should decrease by nearly 600,000 students in eight years. California’s overall population has been either stagnant or slightly declining. Enrollment growth will have to come from more adults who are not recent high school graduates, including the roughly 3 million people aged 25 to 54 who already have college but no degree — and college efforts to retain a larger share of their current students, Hetts said.

Financial help

Rio Hondo College, in a suburban pocket of eastern LA County, has seen its student body drop from 16,292 to 16,370 since fall 2020. That’s still well below the more than 21,000 enrolled in fall 2019, but actually one of the very few community colleges that has managed to grow in the past year.

Enrolling students for financial aid has been key, Rio Hondo officials said.

The college used $200,000 of its $1.2 million in re-enrollment funds to hire 10 part-time staff members who coached students in applying for federal and state financial aid. All of that money came from the smaller allocation in March of last year for re-enrollment funding.

The goal early last fall was to increase the number of new and current students applying for financial aid by 5%, a goal the school met, said Earic Dixon-Peters, vice president of student services. to college students. With state or federal dollars on hand, more students stay in school.

Rio Hondo is also setting aside $4 million in federal COVID-19 relief to forgive student debt on campus, such as unpaid tuition. Before the pandemic, if a student owed money to campus, that student could not enroll in classes. Now registration is open to students with an outstanding balance. So far, 4,000 students have accepted the offer, resulting in a $1.7 million fee rebate, said Rio Hondo vice president of finance Stephen Kibui.

Switch to in-person help

At Santa Barbara City College, enrollment increased to 13,855 students in fall 2021 from 13,664 the previous year, which is still below the 14,874 enrolled in fall 2019.

But the college’s $1.2 million share of state re-enrollment money had nothing to do with it. The college moved the first installment in March to this fiscal year. As for the remaining $1 million? “We didn’t even know until October,” said Kindred Murillo, the college’s acting president. Fall classes in Santa Barbara began August 23.

Contribute to fueling the increase in registrations? No more in-person classes, Murillo said. In fall 2021, approximately 70% of courses were online, compared to approximately 88% in fall 2020. Prior to the pandemic, approximately 17% of college courses were online.

The lost students were “students who did really well in in-person classes and struggled in the online program,” Murillo said. The college’s push for more in-person classes included a focus on non-credit courses, such as English classes, Murillo said. Students in these courses are less likely to be able to take courses online, either due to insufficient internet and computer access or due to language barriers.

State re-enrollment funds are helping to boost spring enrollment, Murillo said. The college used some of the money for a re-enrollment event in December that brought 150 students back in the spring. Students appreciate that 50% of college classes are taught in person, Murillo said. The college also uses a portion of state funds to distribute $500 to selected students to cover books and other school supplies.

Secluded idyll, a rural college prospect

The College of the Siskiyous, the state’s northernmost community college an hour from the Oregon border, also saw a modest rebound in student enrollment last fall. Among students in credited classes, enrollment fell from about 1,300 to 1,400, a campus administrator said. That’s still below the 1,800 enrolled in credit courses in fall 2019.

The college has so far used about $36,000 of its re-enrollment money to print schedules and send them to its service area — roughly the size of Rhode Island. Administrators figured that sending physical copies of the class schedule would reach potential students in the rural north who lacked reliable internet or were unfamiliar with online content. “That could have contributed to some of our enrollment growth,” said Char Perlas, acting superintendent/president of the college.

He also plans to use much of his roughly $400,000 in re-enrollment and retention funds as a down payment for an outreach service with three staff members, though the college will have to find other ongoing sources of funding to pay. the bill.

But because the college is so isolated, it struggles to hire instructors, an ongoing problem that likely prevents the campus from enrolling more students. For example, the college has an engineering degree, but there are semesters in which it offers no engineering courses, administrators said.

Successful re-registration

More than printed schedules or outreach, it’s likely a steady return to in-person learning that will drive enrollment.

The expanded in-person learning and COVID-19 safeguards attracted musical theater student Selena Johnson. Before the pandemic cut short the spring 2020 term, Johnson was in full-time classes. But the next 18 months of teaching online was a struggle.

“It was really hard to go from being excited about going on tour across the state — and being able to have that energy when we were meeting and learning together — to being completely isolated,” Johnson said.

She left school last fall to work, unsure if she would ever graduate. But the college’s commitment to COVID-19 safety precautions and the return of in-person choir classes have brought her back to school this spring part-time.

It’s a pace that suits her, and if she takes two courses next fall and two more the following spring, she can graduate before the summer of 2023.

Cal Matters is a public interest journalism company committed to explaining how the California State Capitol works and why it matters.