By Ashley A. Smith, EdSource
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/Bay City News) — California’s community college system is experiencing a systemwide decline of student enrollment this fall, with some campuses reporting double-digit losses.

The fact that fewer students have enrolled for this fall reveals a worrisome decline for the nation’s largest college system – with 116
institutions serving more than two million students.

While enrollments have been largely flat in recent years, with variations among the colleges, the situation appears to be different this year, with the picture complicated by the coronavirus pandemic, job losses, the transition to mostly online classes and historic wildfires.

This is an issue that we’re paying very close attention to, that we’re very concerned about, particularly as it relates to any loss of
enrollment for our most vulnerable student populations,” California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley said Monday, during a board of governors meeting.

“We did begin the (fall) semester with a brief decline in enrollment. We’re beginning to see that gap close. We’ll have more
data come November but right now we’re probably looking at around a 5 percent to 7 percent decrease in enrollment so far.”

Oakley said the college system also saw “an enrollment increase during the summer session, which is good news. Many students were able to recover from the onset of the pandemic and take classes that they needed.”

Oakley’s numbers are based on a community college survey in which less than half of the colleges responded, with most reporting declining enrollments. Some colleges are bucking the trend, and reported slightly higher enrollments, officials said.

Typically, in an economic recession enrollments in community colleges increase because students have a harder time finding jobs, and seek to improve their skills by taking college classes.

In the past, community colleges have experienced slight declines in enrollment when the economy is doing well and students have chosen to work instead of going to school.

But the declining enrollments during the current recession are at least in part a reflection of students’ reluctance or inability to
participate in online instruction, said Michelle Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based advocacy organization.

“While many of us are tech-savvy, there’s really a sense that students want to be in the classroom,” she said. “This could be a lost generation because typically students who drop out or don’t enroll in college don’t go back.”