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Inequities, Enrollment Loss Persist at California Colleges

California's community college system continues to see steep declines in enrollment as students contend with financial and logistical hurdles compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, and experts are uncertain of a rebound.

(TNS) — Ruby Rivas knows what it means to watch her college dreams collide with a dystopian reality.

The 21-year-old mother of two began her freshman year at San Jose City College in the fall of 2020, when COVID-19 had already padlocked offices and classrooms and forced broad swaths of society to improvise virtual alternatives to in-person activities. For Rivas, that meant a hard-won rite of passage turned into an impersonal drudge of video lectures and endless email chains.

"I would get frustrated," Rivas recalled. "I finished it (a class) but I feel like I didn't learn anything."

Rivas ended up dropping all but one course during her first semester, and didn't return for a second. By the time most California college campuses reopened their lecture halls, Rivas found her technological obstacles replaced by economic ones: She had bills to pay and little ones to raise. Resuming her education took a back seat.

"I still haven't had the experience of going to college in person," she said this past August. "I'm waiting for the right time to come back."

Rivas was one of the nearly 319,000 students the California Community Colleges estimate the system lost last year. The figure translates to a roughly 15 percent decline in the nation's largest, most accessible system for higher learning, and for a student body that skews lower-income, more racially and ethnically diverse, and older than those at four-year institutions.

As colleges of all kinds grapple with how to come back from a pandemic that deepened existing educational inequities, some students are wondering if they can.


California's community college system served 70 percent of the 2.8 million public college undergraduates in the state last year, making it a bellwether for the attainability of a higher education. And it's been a durable one in times of economic distress, when downsized workers look to update their skills or pivot to different career paths, said Paul Feist, the system's vice chancellor for communications.

"Usually during a recession, we see a counter-cyclical trend of an enrollment increase," Feist told The Chronicle.

Not this time. The pandemic fanned what had been a smoldering decline in community college enrollment in recent years, both statewide and nationally. In California as elsewhere, those closer to the margins felt the bigger impacts.

Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, the state community college system went from an estimated 2.15 million students to 1.83 million. The reduction included more than 148,000 Latino students, or 47 percent of the 318,800 students lost, according to a head count that the chancellor's office conducted across all 116 campuses.

In terms of raw numbers, the other biggest losses were among students who are male (179,000), aged 40 or older (102,000) and 19 or younger (93,000). Percentage-wise, there were steep declines in students who are Native American (20 percent) and Black (16 percent).

"COVID did not create new challenges or inequities for our system and our students so much as it shined a spotlight on and exacerbated in many cases the challenges that were already there," David O'Brien, vice chancellor of governmental relations, told the California State Assembly's Higher Education Committee last month.

Community colleges weren't the only institutions to experience pandemic attrition.

The California State University system entered this school year with fewer than 57,000 first-year freshman, representing a 16 percent decline from the previous fall and making it the smallest such class since 2011, according to CSU enrollment data. Retention numbers also declined, said Sylvia Alva, executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

"Unfortunately, underserved students were most reflected in these drops," Alva told the Assembly committee.

While a University of California representative told the committee the system doesn't anticipate a drop-off after offering admission to a record 132,000 applicants in July, enrollment figures for fall 2021 weren't yet available.

UC schools accommodated just under 286,000 total students last year, about 200,000 less than the CSU system and nearly 1.9 million fewer than the state's community colleges.

Still, those who testified at the hearing said they shared the goal of bridging the widening inequities that keep students from pursuing or continuing their education. And, as a delta-hobbled fall gives way to an omicron-rattled winter, they're being forced to do a lot of improvising, acknowledged John Hetts, the California Community Colleges system's senior director of data science.

"When you ask what's the most effective approach, there really is no answer to that. Because colleges are trying everything," he told The Chronicle.

UC schools leaned on summer bridge programs to help incoming freshmen catch up after a year of learning loss, said Michael Brown, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. CSUs launched a systemwide re-enrollment campaign to lure students back, Alva said, and distributed free iPads and other digital devices to more than 22,000 students this fall.

Feist told The Chronicle that community colleges used federal stimulus aid to forgive student debt or cover the cost of books. The system, which receives about $10.6 billion in state funding, already offers two years of free tuition to qualifying low-income students.

But just because a community college education is more affordable these days doesn't doesn't mean that life is.


Rivas is no stranger to unexpected educational challenges. She gave birth to her son two years ago while attending high school and earned her diploma with the support of Teen Success, Inc., a Milpitas-based program that works with pregnant teenagers and young mothers who are pursuing their education.

But remote learning — with its technical difficulties and unstoppable home distractions — sucked the soul out of Rivas' college experience. She gutted through a child development class because she's thinking of one day working in a newborn intensive care unit. But she dropped three other classes.

In April, she started working at ACES San Jose as a behavioral technician with children diagnosed with autism. She's since added two other jobs to stitch together the $3,000-per-month rent for the two-bedroom apartment she and her children moved into in October.

But she did finally make her way into a college classroom.

This fall, she enrolled in a communications studies course at San Jose City College. It's one afternoon a week, it's in person and it's exactly what Rivas hoped higher education would be like.

"I love it, honestly. I feel like I'm actually learning," she said.

Rivas said ACES has offered to support her if she wants to pursue a postdoctoral degree on the way to becoming a board certified behavioral analyst, but that future could be far away. She hasn't met with a counselor to determine what credits she'll need to obtain her associate's degree or how long that would take at her current pace.

In her ideal world, Rivas said she would be a full-time college student with maybe a part-time job — just one — on the side. For that to be remotely possible, Rivas would either need to move back in with her father, who loves the idea, or transport to an alternate reality where Bay Area housing and child care costs don't outpace the earnings of a determined single mom.

"I mean, yeah, if I could, I would just dedicate my time to school and my kids," Rivas said. "Yeah, that would be perfect."

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