Community college enrollment declines in California

Community college enrollment in California has dropped by 18% – a loss of 300,000 students – since the 2018-19 school year, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Established in 1967, California Community Colleges is a post-secondary education system serving more than 2.1 million students at 115 campuses, according to the Community College League of California.

MiraCosta College, a community college in San Diego, saw a 15% drop in enrollment from the 2018-19 school year to the 2020-21 year, according to MiraCosta enrollment data. While the most significant declines occurred during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment had been declining since 2013, with an overall drop of 20%.

This enrollment drop can be attributed to multiple factors, including pandemic-related economic and social pressures and increased enrollment at four-year universities, according to admissions experts.

A survey of former community college students in California by the nonprofit research organization RP Group found that 33% of students reported they had not re-enrolled because they prioritized work and 22% because they prioritized taking care of dependents.

TPHS Special Education Instructional Aid Sandra Ramales views work and familial strain as a major reason for enrollment declines.

“People are barely starting to recover economically, so leaving their job to go back to school must not sound like the greatest idea,” Ramales said.

To address those enrollment barriers during the pandemic, MiraCosta allocated funds for technology and student finances, including $1.75 million for approximately 1,300 laptops and 1,200 hotspots, according to Kristen Huyck, director of public and governmental relations and marketing and communications at MiraCosta.

The pandemic also affected college enrollment in ways beyond economic strains. In recent years, 80% of private four-year universities have gone either test-optional or test-blind, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. Now that testing is less of a factor in the college admissions process, many students, especially those with lower scores, have shifted their education goals to four-year universities, according to a study released by Vanderbilt University.

“Students who may have previously not scored well on college entrance tests like the SAT or the ACT could apply to these four-year [colleges] and have a higher chance of getting in now,” a TPHS counselor said.

In the same years that community college enrollment declined, applications to the University of
California system increased, reaching an all-time high in 2022, according to enrollment data from the UCs. In 2021, the UC suspended its use of SAT and ACT scores for admissions until 2025.

In addition to financial and personal reasons, some TPHS students believe that a stigma associated with attending community college is a reason why some dismiss it as an option.

“I think there is a terrible stigma around the idea that a community gives you less of an education than a four-year, especially in California,” Lillie Rietman (12), who plans to attend community college, said “The high schools here tend to try and get [students] to push for a UC or a four-year college without shedding light on the fact that community is another amazing option for those that are unsure of their major or don’t have the financial funds.”

Madalyn Ladendorf (‘21), a student at MiraCosta, agrees.

“Personally, as someone who applied to 30 schools as undecided, I’m glad that I got to go to community college, figure it out and have really close relationships with my professors and peers,” Ladendorf said.

Enrollment is a major factor that determines how much funding California’s community colleges receive. Tatiana Melguizo, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, told the LA Times that community colleges may be forced to lay off faculty and cut services if the downward enrollment trend continues.

Pandemic relief funds, available until 2025, have temporarily lessened the harm of enrollment declines on community colleges.

“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” Melguizo said, noting “that [it] will be really bad” if the decline continues.

However, the LA Times reported that the declining trend could be slowing, as a national study of community college enrollment found that enrollment had only dropped by 0.4% this fall from the year before. Huyck said that MiraCosta has seen a stabilization in its enrollment this year, and is looking towards a potential uptick.

Both Ladendorf and Rietman stress to TPHS students that attending community college is an option seniors should consider.

“It’s not about how good of a student you are or how much money you have. It’s about accepting that community college is not a lower level or just a step between high school and a four- year school, but it really is just college,” Ladendorf said.

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