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Plummeting Statewide College Enrollment

A report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed a 12% drop in college enrollment in California this spring. Photo by Philippe Bout via Unsplash.

In yet another tragic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, a study released Thursday found a steep drop in college enrollment this spring — particularly in community colleges, which often serve a greater share of low-income students, foster youth and others who face barriers to higher education. 

The decline has been especially stark in California, which saw a 5.3% drop in college and university enrollment overall, and a nearly 12% decrease among community colleges, according to the report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Now advocates, child welfare authorities and state lawmakers are working to get the “lost class of college freshmen” back to the classroom — including a $121 million package to support community college students.

“The pandemic disrupted students’ lives in a myriad of ways that made it difficult or impossible for many of them to continue with their college educations,” said Rafael Chávez, a spokesperson for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. “Retaining and attracting more students will be vital to California’s economic recovery and long-term well-being.”

A statewide survey of nearly 50,000 community college students from the California Community Colleges network conducted late last spring found that economic hardship and lack of access to technology during the pandemic, as well as the shift to digital learning, were among the key barriers to staying in school. More than half the students reported experiencing food and housing insecurity, with students of color far more likely to be impacted. 

The Los Angeles County campaign is directed at professionals in foster youths’ lives, helping them navigate financial aid applications, enrollment and registration.

Many also lost jobs or hours and saw their income drop. Twenty percent of community college students surveyed didn’t have stable access to the internet needed to stream virtual classes, and some lacked a computer or smartphone.

Caretaking responsibilities also challenged many students’ academic stability, the survey found, with 41% caring for a family member while attending school, a challenge Chávez expects to see ease up soon as pandemic restrictions are lifted.

“Many of our students also are parents, so resumption of in-person instruction in K-12 schools is expected to allow them to re-engage with their college plans,” Chávez said.

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Doug Shapiro, executive director of National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, told the Los Angeles Times that while some of the decline in enrollment can be attributed to students dropping out, a key driving factor was high school graduates not enrolling in a postsecondary program. 

The enrollment dip is disproportionately seen among students graduating from low-income high schools, according to John Burton Advocates For Youth, an advocacy group serving foster youth in higher education statewide. In Los Angeles County, the nonprofit has partnered with the county child welfare agency on an initiative to re-engage this “lost class” of students. Given alternatives to traditional universities like vet schools in California would also spark interest in some students.

Addressing this swiftly is especially crucial for foster youth, said Jessica Petrass, the nonprofit’s senior project manager. Historically, fewer than 4% of foster youth earn bachelor’s degrees, and delaying enrollment lowers even further their chances of graduating.

The Los Angeles County campaign is directed at professionals in foster youths’ lives, helping them navigate financial aid applications, enrollment and registration. As part of the effort, L.A.’s child welfare department has sent additional tips and resources to its social workers to help them get their clients reconnected to school, and the county Office of Education has directed on-campus foster youth liaisons to go through their 2020 rosters and reach out to recent grads. 

New federal and state resources are available to colleges attempting to reconnect with students who left school during the pandemic, or high school graduates who didn’t enroll in postsecondary school. In California, Senate Bill 85 provides community colleges with $18 million for recruitment and retention, $3.1 million to help students receive food stamps and $100 million in emergency grants for students in need, per direction from the community college chancellor’s office.

The chancellor’s office also directed schools to prioritize student groups that have seen the steepest decline, which include Black, Latino, Native American and male students, as well as first-time students and those who are returning to school later in life. Student ambassadors and phone-banking are among thestrategies, along with nurturing cultural and tribal-based student groups.


Theresa Reed, an advisor for the foster youth student program at Pasadena City College, worries that after the isolation of the past year, being cut off from the counselors and other supports that helped them stay on track, simple outreach might not cut it. She’s among those tasked with reaching out to students who have dropped out, to see what they need to restart their studies. But her texts, emails and calls most often go unanswered. 

“Our biggest challenge is even getting them to respond,” Reed said. “They're so overwhelmed from everything from this past year and a half.”

Sara Tiano
The Imprint

Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this report.