'Not Just Numbers': Community College Students Share Their Struggles To Stay Enrolled

Norma Patricia Paniagua has taken classes on and off at L.A. Valley College for 20 years. (screenshot of video by Norma Patricia Paniagua)

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Southern California community college campuses are seeing enrollment drops ranging from a few percentage points to nearly a quarter of students compared to this time last year. That translates into tens of thousands of people whose higher education has been derailed by the pandemic.

That includes students such as Norma Patricia Paniagua. She'd been taking classes at Los Angeles Valley College on-and-off for 20 years and was about a semester away from finishing her business degree in March when the pandemic hit.

"I'm a single mother of two boys," she said. "So I now had to become a full-time parent, full-time teacher, and full-time worker all at once at home."

Her 12-year-old son began taking classes from home and her four-year-old son's day care closed, so Paniagua was forced to drop the business class she was taking online in the evening.

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Enrollment has dropped at community colleges in 2020. We spoke to students who for one reason or another took part of 2020 off. ##fyp ##college

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Overall enrollment in the 116-campus California community college system dropped 11% this year compared to the fall 2019 semester. The 3% drop at Los Angeles City College is among the lowest, while the 22.9% drop at Compton College is among the highest.

In addition to financial hardships, counselors say many students have not adapted to the online learning environment because they miss the engagement with instructors and students.

"[Online classes] didn't give me the same joy," said Fredderick Thomas, a Glendale College student. "And I think that's why I chose not to enroll for the fall."

College administrators say it's important to amplify these students' stories to underline to local and state policymakers how the pandemic is making learning gaps worse and leading students to suspend their studies. The goal is to seek funds to help students, whether it's now or when the economy improves.

"These numbers are not just numbers to me, they're people," said Andra Hoffman, chair of the L.A. Community College Board of Trustees.

THE ECONOMY RIPPLES INTO STUDENTS' GRADUATION GOALS

One of the students who didn't return to classes this semester is Briana Sanchez, who enrolled at Cypress College and majored in dance soon after earning her diploma from Westminster High School in 2017. A rent hike and other financial obligations led her to increase her work hours to full time and drop her classes.

"I was close to getting my certificate of teaching for dance and ... transfer [to a university]," she said.

As the pandemic hit in March, Sanchez's already precarious financial situation got worse.

She lived in a $1,500-a-month, two-bedroom apartment in Cypress with her older sister and brother-in-law. A new management company raised the rent by $500 in March.

"We were kind of expecting it but we weren't expecting it ... in the middle of the pandemic," she said.

A relative rented them a three-bedroom house in Fresno for $1,400 a month. Sanchez dropped out of classes and increased her hours at a telecommunications company to full-time.

The money was needed for additional costs. Her sister was going to have a baby.

"I believe it was not the best solution, [which] would have been going back to school and finishing," she said, "but it was the best solution for my family at the moment because we don't really have the support of our parents."

Sanchez said her mother was deported to Mexico about 11 years ago and her father lives in California but is estranged from Sanchez and her sister.

Her college has a strong support system for students' basic needs. Cypress, like other community colleges, has been handing out laptops and wi-fi hotspots to students who need them, and earlier this semester added an outdoor study space under a tent for students who found it difficult to study at home. It's hard to say whether any of those supports would have helped Sanchez stay in school.

Cypress College officials say their enrollment is down about 5% this fall compared to last year.

(Check out this TikTok video from Cypress student Marquis Ward, and watch our other videos for more accounts from students around L.A. who have suspended their studies.)

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Marquis Ward felt like he wouldn't be successful in online classes. So he decided to take a break from ##college through the pandemic. ##fyp

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'I DON'T REALLY LIKE SITTING BEHIND A COMPUTER'

Unlike universities that admit students based on academic achievement in high school, community colleges open their doors to all who want to enroll.

That led Fredderick Thomas to take welding classes at Glendale College. He describes himself as a "hands-on" learner.

"I always liked drawing, physical play. I found it an easier way for me to learn," he said.

Then someone asked if he wanted to work with the campus program that helps tutor and guide formerly incarcerated students through their college careers. That part-time job led him to switch his major to sociology and set a goal to transfer to a university.

"I was doing pretty well with my classes," he said. "I didn't miss a day of school. I was studying and then COVID hit, and it kind of just shut everything down."

He quit his campus job and he stopped attending class.

"I don't really like sitting behind a computer," Thomas said. "There's no physical aspect to the class. I liked being able to ask my teacher anything if I wanted to after class. It just wasn't my flavor."

Glendale College administrators say that while the vast majority of students have adapted to online classes, they're concerned about helping students such as Thomas.

"We have a significant population of students who are not traditional college age," said Michael Ritterbrown, vice president of instructional services at Glendale College, "and there is a percentage of them that don't have the skills that they need, sort of upfront."

At Compton College, the shift to online platforms has contributed to a 22.9% enrollment drop compared to last year.

"Our students are not used to the online environment for registration," said Keith Curry, president of Compton College. "So we're pushing our early outreach programs and dual enrollment programs," which enroll high school students in college classes.

FROM PART-TIME STUDENT TO FULL-TIME PARENT AND WORKER

Norma Paniagua re-enrolled at L.A. Valley College about a year ago when she learned that the campus housed the community college system's only Parent Resource Center. There she found computers, printers, and access to counseling.

"The resource center allowed me to see a counselor [who] informed me that I was on track to graduate," she said.

Last March she was balancing a full-time clerical job at the L.A. County Office of Education, an online business class that she took after work, and caring for her two boys.

The pandemic pushed her to only keep doing the essential jobs. The class fell by the wayside, because she had little time for it and because she didn't have a home computer or wi-fi to support multiple devices.

Enrollment at L.A. Valley College is down 10% this semester. In the nine-campus L.A. Community College District, enrollment is down 13%. Administrators see the flip side of that figure.

"Here we are in a global pandemic," said L.A. Community College District board member Hoffman. "We've retained almost 87% of our students, which I think is something to be proud of."

MOVING FORWARD

Despite the obstacles, all of the students interviewed hope to resume their studies.

Paniagua got a promotion and a raise and that's allowed her to save up some money. She plans to buy a computer that she can use for classes, and to pay for childcare to free up part of her day to finish those last few classes next year. Her goal is to transfer to Cal State L.A. to earn a business degree.

"It's going to come some day but for sure, I will have a degree," Paniagua said.

Briana Sanchez's connection to college learning was sparked by ballet and hip-hop classes at Cypress College. In between her full-time job and helping her sister, she takes time to practice some of the dance techniques she learned in college.

"Dance has been an outlet for me, it's helped me through a lot," she said. "Dance just makes me forget about the situation, just be who I want to be for a little bit."

She plans to finish her Cypress classes online next year and transfer to Fresno State's dance program.

Fredderick Thomas is going to ride out the pandemic. He wants to work for a non-profit in a low income neighborhood and return to classes when they're back to in-person. He said he wants to continue learning about social justice.

"Me being a Black man and also a Cambodian man, two minorities, with everything that's going on now," he said, "I think my people need nothing but help, now more than ever."

A counselor on Thomas' campus worries when students say they're going to drop classes and return.

"When students get out of that rhythm, when students stop incorporating those pieces into their daily and weekly schedule, it can be really difficult to get back into it," said Glendale College career counselor Anne-Marie Beck.

She says when college administrators begin making plans to open campuses for classes, she and other counselors will be calling and emailing students such as Thomas, Paniagua, and Sanchez to urge them to resume their studies.