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After Years Of Declining Enrollment, Community Colleges In California Are Stabilizing

A gray parking garage with a large, vertical red banner that says Home of the Vikings, with the LBCC Viking head mascot on it.
Long Beach City College designated a Safe Parking Garage (pictured) for students who are homeless and sleep in their cars. The parking garage has on-site security and access to showers.
(Jackie Orchard
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Community colleges have struggled with enrollment for years. But recent numbers offer a glimmer of hope.

Nationally, since 2018, enrollment at community colleges has dipped from 5.4 million students to 4.5 million students, a 0.4% increase from last year, but still a 16% drop from pre-pandemic levels. That decline has been felt acutely in Los Angeles, home to a significant chunk of California's community college students.

In the 2018-2019 term, California Community Colleges (CCC) enrolled 2,251,000 students. Since then, statewide enrollment has dropped by more than 400,000 students. But there’s been some hope this year.

2023 national enrollment trends

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment is starting to stabilize in 2023, with community colleges across the country seeing freshman enrollment increases of 42,000 students, about 6% higher than fall 2019.

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Credit: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center -- chart showing enrollment declines in community colleges nation-wide since 2017.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment has been declining in community colleges nation-wide since 2017.
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center)

The CCC Chancellor’s Office says 69 of its 116 colleges had higher headcounts in Fall 2022 than Fall 2021. That's compared to just 17 a year ago.

Long Beach City College is one of those colleges seeing an uptick, with enrollment up by 10% from Spring 2022.

Mike Muñoz, LBCC's president, says personalized outreach has helped to increase his schools headcount by about 2,000 students since last year.

“When we look at the persistence rates from fall to spring, and we compare this coming spring from the previous fall, more students are persisting,” Muñoz said. “And so that data is looking positive, but it's through intentionality.”

For him, “intentionality” means LBCC staff has a list of names of students who have yet to re-enroll to complete their degree, and they call these students to see what their roadblocks are, then put them in touch with resources.

California Community Colleges have one of the highest populations in the country of working students and student parents who are balancing studies with other challenges.

Why basic needs matter

In addition to touching base personally, Muñoz says the new name of the game for community colleges is basic needs, particularly addressing issues for students experiencing homelessness and student parents who need child care.

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“Whether it's the Safe Parking Program, or our new Boys and Girls Club partnership with the Viking Kids Club, or it's building pathways for gang-affiliated youth, we are really committed to removing as many barriers as possible,” he said.

The Safe Parking Program is a pilot program for helping the roughly 70 students at LBCC who sleep in their cars at night. All enrolled students can stay in the designated safe parking structure on campus where students will have access to restrooms, Wi-Fi, and showers.

The Viking Kids Club provides free child care to student parents while they attend class or study on campus, and serves ages 6-18.

Support from the state

California has provided tens of millions of dollars over the past two years to help colleges focus on enrollment and retention in light of the pandemic.

A funding formula reset in 2018 means colleges receive funds for reasons beyond enrollment, rewarding colleges for student outcomes and for the number of students who receive financial aid. Is that formula working well? It's hard to tell, because of a years-long transition period made even longer by the pandemic.

The CCC Chancellor’s Office is also focusing on dual enrollment opportunities with K-12 partners and adult school populations to reach older learners. There’s been an effort to use federal funds to forgive student debt, cover textbook costs, increase food pantry hours, and provide childcare stipends, laptops, and emergency housing vouchers. 

What more funding could do

Muñoz says if he could get more funding to expand basic needs services in one area it would be meal programs so his students don’t go hungry. The campus has the Viking Vault which provides fresh food, gas cards, and diapers for free, but Muñoz would like to see hot meals served.

“I would love to see similar to what you see in the K-12 system,” Muñoz said. “A fully funded nutrition program so that we could actually feed our students on our campuses every day—they could come and get lunch and dinner and they wouldn't have to worry about that.”

Muñoz says community colleges have the added appeal of acting as stepping stones to four-year institutions.

“We're one of the strongest leaders in the completion of associate degrees for transfer in the state of California. And we have a strong transfer pathway to Long Beach State,” he said.

At the end of the day, Muñoz says community colleges are essential to the lifting up of marginalized communities.

What questions do you have about local community colleges?
Community colleges act as a gateway for first-generation students and adults seeking a second start. LAist reporter Jackie Orchard wants students — and those who support them — to have the information they need to thrive in the California Community College system.

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