During a recent news conference with dozens of student journalists from our system’s college news outlets, the topic of declining enrollment came up as did students’ preferred modality for accessing and completing community college courses.

By now, it is well established that nationally and in California the pandemic has hit community college students especially hard, with enrollment declining at a higher rate than at four-year institutions.

Comparing the fall 2019 semester to the fall 2021 semester, headcount enrollment in the California Community Colleges looks like it will be down by about 19%.

This raises critical concerns about equitable access to and success in higher education as well as the ability to meet workforce needs, and it is why the entire community college system has mobilized to stabilize and turn back these declines.

Enrollment has been declining since before COVID in California, where population growth is at its lowest rate in more than a century, according to the Department of Finance. The department projects an 11.4% decline in K-12 enrollment by 2031, adding urgency for us to develop new strategies to engage older, working learners and to ensure that more of our current students persist to their desired goals. We are fortunate that the state has moved away from relying solely on enrollment as a determinant of funding community colleges in California, and colleges are working to retain as many currently enrolled students as possible.

The Student Centered Funding Formula provides funding that supports access through enrollment-based funding, student equity by targeting funds to districts serving low-income students and student success by providing districts with additional resources for students’ successful outcomes. Our enrollment declines are significant and commanding the full attention of system and college leaders. Ultimately, these are structural declines that began before the recent crisis and which will require rethinking pre-pandemic strategies and responding to what students need during these times.

As just one example, a student journalist pointed out that the political push by some for more in-person instruction does not align with what students want. She noted that online classes at her college fill more rapidly than those held in person. This is consistent with trends in other parts of the system and surveys show that the vast majority of students want online or hybrid instruction. 

Resiliency that gives rise to innovation and agility will provide a way forward to better serve California.