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'If Students Don’t Have A Purpose, They’ll Get Lost': How Colleges Are Winning Back Students Who Left

Three students, all wearing black t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, walk by a campus building with a sign above the entry that says 'Classrooms'
At Long Beach City College, officials have used federal relief funds to provide direct aid to students impacted by the pandemic.
(Courtesy Long Beach City College )
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Like millions of other workers, Grace Nakamura was laid off at the start of the pandemic. It was tough, she said, but it also got her thinking: “Maybe this is a good time to try something else.”

When she first enrolled at Santa Monica College last spring, there were 59 students in her online human biology course. By finals, that number whittled down to 11.

“I can understand why young students become discouraged and overwhelmed,” Nakamura said. “It’s tough to make friends that way. Plus, the onus is completely on the student, and they may not have the discipline to self-regulate.”

Undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. has been falling since 2012, in part due to the rising cost of tuition and declining birth rates. But the combination of the pandemic and the economic crisis accelerated the trend.

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According to a recent analysis from the student data organization National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. has dropped by over a million students since the fall of 2019. California accounts for about a quarter of the plunge, and the problem is especially significant at community colleges.

Higher education officials hoped enrollment would improve with the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine, and that public health measures — things like reduced class size and new air filtration systems — would hasten a safe return to in-person learning and keep students enrolled.

Yet undergraduates are “continuing to sit out in droves,” said Doug Shapiro, the vice president of research at the Clearinghouse, in a statement.“Without a dramatic re-engagement in their education,” he added, “the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant.”

State leaders have noticed. In response to the steep decline at two-year institutions, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2022-23 budget proposal calls for $150 million to support retention efforts at community colleges, targeting students who recently quit and prospective students who are on the fence about signing up.

Enrollment And Retention Dips

In Southern California, the decline has affected some campuses more than others, but administrators everywhere have concerns.

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“We stayed pretty strong,” Mary Beth Walker, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Cal State Northridge, told our newsroom's public affairs show, AirTalk, which airs on 89.3 KPCC.
At the campus, she added, the headcount dipped from just under 39,000 undergraduates in the fall of 2020 to about 38,500 in the fall of 2021.

Emily Engelschall, director of undergraduate admissions at UC Riverside, said the undergraduate student body actually grew during the pandemic. However, she added, “depending on the population, our retention has declined somewhere between 2% and 4%.”

Students at Cal Poly Pomona are “trying to hang on,” but “they are struggling,” said Terri Gomez, associate provost of student success, equity, and inclusion.

Requests to withdraw from classes have become increasingly common, she added. Plus, there was a steep decline in enrollment numbers among what she refers to as the “the COVID cohort” (students who joined the university amid the pandemic) for spring 2022. Cal Poly Pomona was able to get those students enrolled, “but it was an all-hands-on-deck effort,” said Gomez.

Two years into the pandemic, traditional college-age students (18-24) also find themselves in an unusual labor market: faced with staff shortages, employers at jobs that don’t require degrees are offering higher pay and signing bonuses to lure prospective candidates. As NPR has reported, this can be particularly enticing for working-class students, who tend to launch their higher education careers at community colleges.

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Community College As A Path Forward

Families who could afford to send their children to college have debated whether it was worth paying for remote learning and a diminished campus life. At the other end of the economic spectrum, tens of thousands of college students delayed or quit school to help support their families.

Today, Nakamura works two jobs while studying to be admitted to Santa Monica College’s competitive respiratory therapy program. “I’m not anywhere close to retiring,” said Nakamura, who is in her 50s. Come February, she’ll be taking anatomy and organic chemistry.

She’s a model for what community colleges offer: A pathway through higher education with more flexibility, fewer barriers to entry and less expenses than larger public universities.

She hopes some of the funding in Newsom’s budget proposal will be used to provide financial support for nontraditional students like herself, including those who want a career change.

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“There are people who feel trapped in their jobs, but they can’t see themselves taking on an additional expense,” she said.

Joshua Elizondo transferred to Pepperdine University from Santa Monica College in the fall of 2021. Accomplishing that goal, he said, has everything to do with his community college education, which he described as transformative.

Elizondo identifies as Latinx, but because he grew up in the foster care system, in a predominantly white suburb in Michigan, he had few opportunities to learn about his heritage. At Santa Monica College, he joined Adelante, an academic support program for Latino students that requires participation in counseling and workshops. In addition to helping him hone his academic skills, the program helped him connect with students of the same background.

Elizondo was also part of the Guardian Scholars, which provides support for current and former foster youth. These programs, along with the opportunity to mentor local middle school students, helped him stay motivated and carve a path for himself.

“When I first started at community college, I thought I had to be a business major,” Elizondo said. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so it was a little messy.”

In his view, retention efforts must include opportunities for self-discovery. “It’s easy to get students to go to college,” he added. “The whole world is telling them they need an education. But if they don’t know why they’re there — if they don’t have a purpose, a tangible goal — they’ll get lost.”

Despite having transferred, Elizondo continues to take courses at Santa Monica College, where he’s the president of the student government. Last August, he was appointed to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, which sets policy and provides guidance for the 116 colleges in the system.

Efforts To Retain

Elsewhere in California, some schools have already ramped up their outreach. Los Angeles City College, for instance, increased its recruitment staff, who are tasked with contacting area high schools and having follow-up calls with prospective students. Staff members also reach out to students who register but fail to enroll.

At Long Beach City College, recruitment and retention work is multifaceted. Shortly before the pandemic, Superintendent-President Mike Muñoz partnered with two local high schools that had low enrollment numbers at the two-year institution. With the support of the schools’ principals, Muñoz crafted a pilot program, which obligated every graduating senior to apply to the college.

Plus, after noticing that Black and Latino males were abandoning their studies more than any other demographic, the college established the Male Success Initiative. Through it, staff reach out to the students, persuade them to return and help them access financial aid and other essential resources.

Both of these efforts remain in place. Additionally, the college keeps tabs on students who are close to completing their coursework and assigns them a specialized counselor to keep them on track.

We recognize the many challenges our students face, and we are hungry to remove as many barriers as possible.
— Mike Muñoz, Superintendent-President, Long Beach City College

It also used federal emergency funds to provide targeted grants to help students cover essentials, like books, Chromebooks, childcare and transportation. To motivate students who abandoned their studies halfway, the college sent out 3,000 postcards in English, Khmer and Spanish, inviting them to “Express Days” where staff quickly helped them reactivate their status.

“We recognize the many challenges our students face,” said Muñoz, “and we are hungry to remove as many barriers as possible.”

Still, like community colleges throughout the country, Long Beach City College experienced a drop in headcount. Compared to last spring, said Muñoz, enrollment is down by 1.2%.

But “our declines are not as high as many of our sister colleges,” he underscored. “And that’s because we have been very intentional about our work with students.”

Looking at enrollment for spring, Muñoz is most excited by the number of “indirect matriculants” who’ve signed up for class. These are students who chose not to enroll in college immediately after graduating from high school. This demographic took a dip last spring, he told LAist. This year, it’s up by more than one thousand students.

When asked if $150 million from the governor would be enough to meet the recruitment and retention needs of California’s 116 community colleges, Muñoz said he’s “very pleased with the amount that’s there for now.” However, given that federal emergency funds are about to sunset, he added: “If the budget allows, we could use some more.”

The governor’s budget proposal now makes its way through California’s legislature, which has until June 15 to pass the spending plan.

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