SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — At Mesa College in San Diego, VP of Student Instruction Isabel O'Connor noticed something this fall that she hasn't seen in years.
"As I was driving to campus, there was a lot of traffic," she says. "And I was just so thrilled to see that."
Traffic issues aside, community college administrators across San Diego are thrilled to see enrollment numbers rise this year, following nearly five years of annual declines.
"It almost feels like we're at a crossroads now and people are ready to re-enroll in college," says Dr. Mark Sanchez, the President and Superintendent of Southwestern Community College.
An ABC 10News Report in April of 2021 showed how community college enrollment dropped drastically during the pandemic, in some cases by as much as 30%.
Now, many campuses say they're seeing headcounts rise as the pandemic enters a new, endemic phase.
"There is a growing sense of energy on the campuses," a spokesperson from Grossmont/Cuyamaca told ABC 10News in a statement, "With a noticeable increase in students and activities since the fall semester started."
Official numbers aren't available for the fall semester yet, as many schools see enrollment bumps in the first couple of weeks. On many campuses, shorter classes that start mid-term also factor into the final fall number.
But the San Diego Community College District says its headcount is up 7% over last year, including a 42% increase in continuing education students. Southwestern Community College is up 2%. And the Grossmont/Cuyamaca Community College District is also up 2%.
Only Palomar College told ABC 10News they've seen another decline, with enrollment down 5% from last year. But Superintendent/President, Dr. Star Rivera-Lacey expects that number to shrink, as "We are continuing to enroll students for the fall semester and in our 8-week sessions that will begin at the middle of the semester."
Officials at many of those schools say the return of more in-person learning is a major factor in rising enrollment.
Southwestern President Sanchez says the results from student surveys were fairly clear about that point.
"They stated pretty significantly that they wanted to be back in face-to-face courses. They wanted to receive services (on campus)," Dr. Sanchez says. "It was very important for them to have a presence on the physical campus."
But that's not the only reason. Community Colleges across San Diego have been working for the past 18 months to find solutions to other problems that kept people out of post-secondary education.
"We have to look at how we support the holistic students and really look at what the students want and need," says Dr. O'Connor from Mesa College. "What is the best way to offer a course? What's the best modality?"
Community Colleges have offered a number of ways to reduce costs and make classes fit into the students' schedules. SDCCD announced record enrollment in this fall's Promise Program, which gives free tuition and more to students that qualify. The schools also expanded their use of zero-cost textbooks, free supplies like calculators and computers for students, and more flexible class and tutoring times.
Southwestern Community College used federal and state COVID-19 relief funds to forgive around $4 million in student debt as a way to entice people to re-enroll. The school also reached out directly to former students who hadn't completed their degrees.
"We intentionally marketed to those students around how close they were to completing their educational goal and really encouraged them to come back and complete the goal," says Dr. Sanchez.
Like Palomar, many community colleges are also offering shorter classes, that take weeks instead of months to complete. It's all an effort to make post-secondary education more enticing and more rewarding.
And while these changes didn't bring enrollment back to the numbers they were before the Pandemic, officials say it's a good start.