Student enrollments at California’s community colleges have declined during the pandemic, exacerbating existing enrollment problems. At a briefing last week for a new report, PPIC researcher Cesar Alesi Perez outlined the decline in enrollment and persistence among transfer-seeking students, who make up 57% of all community college students. The steepest enrollment decline was among freshmen, particularly Asian and Hispanic students.
Community college students who were able to remain enrolled performed relatively well despite pandemic disruptions — findings that came with Perez’s caveat that those who stayed faced fewer pandemic challenges. In addition, reforms such as AB 705 may have removed some obstacles.
Enrollment challenges and persistence are not new, but the pandemic may prompt colleges to explore new strategies to attract and retain students. After Perez made recommendations that included expanded dual enrollment (a program that allows high school students to take college courses on their high school campus) and outreach to adult learners, the PPIC researcher led Jacob Jackson hosted a panel discussion on the community college’s efforts to expand support and development for justice-focused reform.
Nikki Edgecombe, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, commended colleges for their work at innovating, educating teachers and expanding offerings during the pandemic, but acknowledged efforts need to be better aligned with student needs, particularly in the online environment. “We have struggled for some time to find the best way to support online learning and online student services in a way that supports academic success.”
Despite advances in online offerings, students want to return to campus, a point Rancho Santiago Community College District chancellor Marvin Martinez emphasized throughout the discussion. “During COVID, many students have had to rely on paying for their internet, getting top-of-the-line laptops… and studying in a two-bedroom apartment.” Students want to return to campus environments, state-of-the-art libraries and labs.
However, college affordability remains a factor in whether or not students can return. To address this problem, according to Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, vice chancellor for educational services and support at California Community Colleges, the financial burden is being shifted from students to institutions. “We’ve been blessed with robust investments in our system, and many of those investments are flexible,” Ruan-O’Shaughnessy said, emphasizing that colleges need to find the best ways to provide students with direct help that leads to direct support .
Rancho Santiago District responded to students’ financial concerns by increasing its partnerships with secondary schools, resulting in a dramatic increase in dual enrollment. “We know that dual enrollment works for financial reasons; It also helps students be more academically successful,” Martinez said. Adult continuing education also grew because correspondence courses made enrollment viable for working adults.
Edgecombe stressed the need for institutions to recognize the economic trade-offs that many students make between going to school and working, and to structure course offerings, student support and other resources to enable students to do both.
“As a system, we say that financial stability, health and well-being, and a support network are critical to support mobility,” Ruan-O’Shaughnessy said. “These are the three core areas that we want to focus our strategy on.”