In-Depth: Community college enrollment across San Diego plummets during pandemic

Local colleges see double-digit decreases
Posted at 5:54 AM, Apr 20, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-20 10:20:32-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Enrollment in Community Colleges saw a sharp decline from 2019 to 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on campuses across the state.

According to data published by EdSource, enrollment dropped 16.8% throughout California. In San Diego, seven of the eight community colleges saw double-digit drops.

"It's surprising in that normally during recessions, community college enrollment goes up because people are trying to train for new jobs," says Grossmont Cuyamaca CC District Spokesperson Anne Krueger.

"So the surprise is that in this recession, it's gone down."

Local administrators believe pandemic-related financial issues among students were the main reasons many chose to leave campus or not enroll.

"I think (the pandemic) amplified the challenges that community colleges students have to start with," says Mesa College President Dr. Pamela Luster. "We have students, about 20%, with housing insecurity. Almost half describe food insecurity, pre-pandemic."

"They're trying to make it," says Southwestern College President Dr. Mark Sanchez. "Their focus is on the things that they need to do to survive. And often, taking college courses is not at the top of the priority list."

In addition to financial issues, online learning became an obstacle for some students.

"Many of our students will tell me very directly online learning just does not work for me," says Dr. Sanchez. "They're trying to connect to the internet that oftentimes is unstable, or they're working out of a kitchen, or they're working out of a bedroom. There are multiple distractions."

Not all schools agree with the data. A spokesperson for MiraCosta College told ABC 10News that the EdSource is flawed and "significantly overstated the overall enrollment decline from fall 2019 to fall 2020."

In a statement, MiraCosta says the data EdSource used did not correctly account for online students and students who took non-credit courses. According to their numbers, enrollment at MiraCosta only declined by 7.3%.

Still, to stem the tide, local colleges received tens of millions of dollars in federal funding from the CARES Act, the American Rescue Plan, and Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds. They used much of it for direct payments to students, financial aid, and investments in technology.

Over the past year, schools have given out laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to help students transition to online classes.

Schools also increased their direct outreach to current, potential, and former students to make them feel like part of the community.

"We are calling students. We are texting students. We are letting them know we're here for them," says Dr. Luster.

Moving forward, they hope a return to campus next year will help reverse the trend. Exact numbers will depend on vaccine levels, and case rates in the fall, but some schools say they could have anywhere between 25-40% of classes held in-person when the 2021-22 school year begins. They're hoping to increase that number for the Spring Semester.

Meanwhile, they believe Community Colleges' focus on career-training programs will make them attractive to people looking for a new job after the Pandemic.

"We feel like we've got excellent programs especially for students who are looking for some short-term training to get new careers," says Krueger.

"We're just excited to welcome students back," says Dr. Luster. "We think we'll have a greater number of students in the long run, as students start to retrain for some of these new jobs of coming out of what will undoubtedly be a very different economy as we move forward."