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The Pandemic’s Effect on Community College Enrollment

photo - Community College Student Learning Online from Home

Note: This blog post was updated on October 20, 2020 with the latest data and related clarifications.

As early as April, students at California community colleges cited increased anxiety, mental distress, and income loss as factors affecting their ability to enroll in and complete planned courses. For many students, uncertainty also lingers around whether they will receive the necessary financial support to keep on track for their degree—despite expanded relief from efforts such as the CARES Act and Student Emergency Aid Initiative.

Community colleges serve as an entry point to higher education for a diverse body of over two million students, many of whom come from lower-income households. If fewer students enroll, existing gaps in outcomes for Californians may be exacerbated.

In 2020, community colleges saw a 5.2% drop in student headcount compared to the previous spring—the biggest year-to-year change in enrollment since 2012.  However, given that many students had already enrolled in their courses for the term when campuses moved to online learning, the pandemic effect may be better reflected in the number of courses they dropped. During the pandemic, many students had to withdraw from courses (a change in course withdrawal policy allowed students a refund and no impact on their academic standing). We find that total course withdrawals increased by 55%—surging from 458,867 withdrawals in spring 2019 to 713,216 in spring 2020.

Due to these withdrawals, the total number of courses that students enrolled in fell by 17%. While course enrollment fell for all racial and ethnic groups, the decline was more severe for African American (-23%) and Native American/Alaska Native (-36%) students.

figure - Course Enrollment Dropped in Spring as a Result of Course Withdrawals

This drop in enrollment numbers, combined with the dramatic rise in course withdrawals, will likely slow long-term educational trajectories for students who would have (if not for the pandemic) completed their courses, especially for students of color. Students who withdrew from more—or all—of their courses may take longer to complete required classes for their majors or to transfer.

The news around COVID-19 changes from week to week, forcing community colleges to adapt tactics for supporting students. Regardless of how courses will be delivered, schools should reach out and attempt to re-enroll those who left, find ways to offer the courses students need to ensure they can continue on their educational journey, and work with students to update plans for achieving academic goals. As we learn more about student enrollment this fall, we will gain a more complete picture of the impact of the pandemic on student outcomes.

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