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Community college enrollment data provides new insight

A recent article in EdSource provides a deep dive into the pandemic’s effects on California’s community colleges. California’s community college system has 115 campuses around that state. Since 2019, the system has lost about 300,000 students. The pandemic didn’t begin until 2020, so the losses began even before that. What does the community college enrollment data show about who left and why they disenrolled?

To put California’s community college enrollment losses in perspective, Michigan’s community colleges enroll about 365,000 students. In other words, California’s community college system lost nearly as many students as Michigan enrolls.

Several California community college campuses now rely on high school dual enrollment to prop up their overall enrollment numbers. Normally, the state funds its community colleges based on enrollment numbers. Since the pandemic, the state has suspended its enrollment-driven funding formula until 2025. Even with the boost they receive from dual enrollment, if California’s community colleges cannot reverse their enrollment slides by 2025, the system will likely see layoffs, service reductions and eliminations and perhaps even campus closures.

Community college enrollment picture

An analysis of the huge enrollment declines showed a few important data points. Men dropped out at a faster rate than women did. That’s true across the nation. But the fact that women dropped out at almost the same rate is troubling, since community colleges enroll more female than male students. Essentially, female students are a community college’s bread and butter. When they start to jump ship, it can only mean trouble ahead.

California saw another large decline among new students who first enrolled in 2020. The switch to online classes was too much for many of them. Another major loss? Students over the age of 50. Nearly a third of students in this demographic disenrolled and never returned. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, but the switch to online enrollment may have been too technologically demanding for persons in this age bracket. It’s also possible that COVID-19’s impact on older people may have scared student in this demographic right out of the classroom.

Who stayed?

One interesting find related to age: the demographic most likely to persist was adults between the ages of 30 and 34. These adults were least likely to drop out. Possibly, students in this demographic have the most riding on the completion of a degree program. They’re technologically savvy enough to transition from in-person learning to online learning, so they’re the most willing to make online learning work.

The other interesting thing the California data showed was that the students most likely to drop out and not return were persons of color. This facet of the data is important because the California state universities rely on a community college pipeline of students. Fewer students at community colleges mean fewer students transferring to state universities. Fewer minority community college transfers mean a less diverse student body at the state universities.

Among all of this are the reasons these students haven’t gone back to campus. They include meeting the demands of work; providing care for other family members; and the inability to keep up with classwork.

If the California data reflect the national experience, it’s going to take years to rebuild community college enrollment. But addressing the reasons people left – the ability to make more money by working, the need provide family care, and difficulty managing the materials – could make it easier for them to return.

Photo Credit: Tracie Hall, via Flickr