California Community College Enrollment Drops Far More Than Originally Anticipated

In a dramatic illustration of the impact of the pandemic on many students’ higher education plans, enrollments at California’s community colleges are down an average of 11 percent to 12 percent systemwide. That’s far higher than the preliminary estimates of 5 percent to 7 percent after schools opened last fall.

According to a memo sent to the Board of Governors of the 116 community college-system, the decline in student headcounts—referring to the total number of part- and full-time students—in some colleges ranged from 30 percent to 50 percent. The board will consider the issue at its meeting to be held in the coming week.

Presented by vice chancellors Marty Alvarado and Lizette Navarette, the memo described the declines in stark terms, including suggesting that the existence of some of the colleges with the steepest declines could be at risk.

“These declines represent a significant challenge for the system overall, and potential future threat to individual viability barring significant local efforts to remain student centered,” the memo stated, without naming any individual colleges.

The greatest declines have been among older, male and first-time students.

In total, the chancellor's office is now estimating that there was a decline across the state of nearly 187,000 students compared to fall 2019. It’s the latest evidence that, among California’s higher education systems, it is the state's 116 community colleges and the students they enroll that have suffered the most during the coronavirus pandemic.

The latest figures are not final numbers. A few colleges have not finished reporting their enrollment statistics. “The types of students that we serve in our system—underrepresented people of color, first generation college students, student parents—are the types of people that the pandemic had the greatest impacts on,” said John Hetts, who oversees data research for the system.

The colleges saw enrollment declines in the fall among students of all races and ethnicities, but especially among Black, Native American and Latino students. Black students declined by 15 percent, Native American students by 18 percent and Latino students by 12 percent, according to the chancellor office’s latest estimates.

By contrast, California’s two four-year university systems, the 23-campus California State University and the University of California with nine undergraduate campuses, slightly increased their undergraduate enrollments in the fall.

There are likely a number of reasons that students are enrolling at lower rates. Older students may be unable to take classes because they have children who are at home in distance learning. Students from low-income families may be working more hours because of lost wages in their family and don't have time to take classes. Other students may not have adequate internet access to take classes online, or they may have been enrolled in programs that don't translate well to distance learning.

Regardless of the causes, the board memo from the chancellor’s office suggested there would be no easy fix to the problem.

“Enrollment will continue to be a significant ongoing problem that needs the system’s full attention and strategic planning,” it stated. “Pandemic-era and post-pandemic planning cannot be approached in the traditional fashion.” Rather, it advised the board that “more must and should be done to attract post-traditional learners.”

Since last year, California community colleges have been trying to engage former students with marketing and by reaching out directly by phone and email. The state Legislature last month also approved $20 million to support those efforts and help colleges reengage students who have either dropped out or are at risk of leaving.

But whether the colleges can truly begin to bring those students back may depend on when they can significantly increase the number of in-person classes they offer.

If there continues to be semesters with mostly distance learning, reversing the enrollments may “be more challenging,” Hetts said. “But right now I think we are in a good place with the right support from the state, and I’m reasonably optimistic that we’ll be able to weather this.”

There were also significant downturns in the number of male and older students who enrolled last fall. Male students declined by about 18 percent, compared to an 8 percent decline among their female counterparts. Students 35 and older also decreased by at least 23 percent, data show.

First-time students decreased more than continuing students. First-time students are those who enroll out of high school or any other student who matriculates for the first time. That group declined by 18 percent in the fall, according to the estimates.

Hetts said that trend should be attributed at least in part to the uncertainty that the pandemic brought. “I think one of the things that happens is when you haven’t yet decided to do something, and you’re facing that level of uncertainty, it’s hard to get started,” he said. “It’s hard to lean into that uncertainty.”

Still, the number of continuing students also declined, according to state data, dropping about 9 percent compared to fall 2019.

Among the colleges that lost 30 percent to 50 percent of students, the most noticeable trend is that many of them are the state’s smaller colleges, including some rural colleges like ones in Northern California near the border with Oregon, Hetts said.

Since those colleges are small, losing even 1,000 students marks a significant decline. “Because they’re smaller colleges,” Hetts added, “they’re going to vary more.”

This article originally appeared on Ed Source. Copyright © 2021 Bay City News.


  1. Burke and Freedberg angle to rationalize cutbacks in vital and relatively affordable public post-secondary education to deal with declining enrollments. To what do they attribute falling student participation? They point to: a) the need for parents to be home with children who are distance learning; b) the need for low-income students to work more to supplement falling family incomes; c) inadequate access to the internet for distance learning and; d) college programs not easily amenable to distance learning. The solution? Better marketing and outreach. If that can’t be done, the fix lurking between the lines of this shoddy attempt at journalism is eliminating programs or entire colleges, a “solution” that would compound the difficulties already facing community college students in California’s poorest regions.

    Had they been paying attention, Burke and Freedberg would know that pre-existing, pre-COVID-19 conditions of community college students was already so dire that an Assembly bill introduced in 2019 would have allowed homeless community college students to sleep in their cars in designated lots on community college campuses. Had they been paying attention, they would have noticed that homelessness afflicted about one in five community college students in 2018 and food insecurity affected about one in two and that “the highest incidence of basic needs insecurity is found in the Northern Coastal, Northern Inland, and Greater Sacramento regions of California” (;;;

    As noted by Burke and Freedberg, those are precisely the regions where the student dropout rate has been the highest. But they somehow fail to connect the dots. They also fail note that significant shares of students at the 33 campuses of the California State Universities and Colleges and the University of California also suffer from homelessness and food insecurity and that university administrators are seeking to address these problems by significantly expanding relatively low cost on-campus housing and subsidized food programs (

    In what other advanced capitalist country do college and university students suffer housing and food deficits? None. The solution is not neoliberal austerity–the solution is expanded public sector services funded by progressive taxation of income and wealth.

  2. Maybe homeless & hungry students should get a job instead of a handout. Just an idea.
    If they are serious about getting an AA, they can go back to school later in life after they are financially secure instead of forcing someone else to pay for them to go now. Going now is a luxury they obviously can’t afford so why force me to pay for it when they can do it themselves later?

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