Inland Empire community colleges are struggling to rebound after losing students during the coronavirus pandemic.
Reflecting national and statewide trends, enrollment declined across the interior region last year, with the rate of decline varying from campus to campus.
Enrollment fell 14.1% in the 2020-21 school year, for example, in the San Bernardino Community College district, which includes San Bernardino Valley College and Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa.
Enrollment fell 12.6% at Mt. San Jacinto College in Riverside County and 8.9% in the Riverside Community College District, which operates colleges in Riverside City, Norco and Moreno Valley.
Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga saw a 7.5% drop in enrollment, according to the Office of the Chancellor of California Community Colleges.
On several campuses, the year-long drop in enrollment erased several years of steady growth.
Educators cite a variety of reasons for this trend. For some, the hurdles to online learning have proven too difficult to overcome. Others took a break to focus on pressing personal or family priorities.
Laura Hope, associate superintendent of teaching and institutional effectiveness at Chaffey College, said many students are considering returning to college.
“What the students told us was, ‘I still value my education, but I have this other hierarchy of needs that I have to take care of first,'” Hope said.
Wolde-Ab Isaac, district chancellor of Riverside Community College, said some students have postponed their studies to earn money in the region’s booming logistics industry.
“Our county is full of warehouses,” Isaac said, and they’re paying a lot more than they were a few years ago as demand for products online skyrockets.
Regional economist John Husing said the logistics sector created more than 50,000 jobs in Riverside and San Bernardino counties between 2019 and 2021, creating plenty of opportunities – while employers in other sectors posted everywhere signs “request for help”.
“Maybe that’s why they don’t go to school,” Husing said. “They are going to work.”
Final enrollment statistics are not available for the 2021-22 school year. But there are signs that the drop in student enrollment is easing in some places.
Preliminary figures indicate that Chaffey College, for example, will end the year with around 1% fewer students than in 2020-21, spokeswoman Melissa Pinion said by email.
At Mt. San Jacinto College, spokeswoman Karin Marriott said preliminary indications point to a slight year-over-year increase.
“We’re meeting students where they are by offering more online courses and hybrid courses, so we’re essentially stable,” wrote Brandon Moore, vice president of institutional efficiency and enrollment management at the college. , in an email.
The Riverside Community College district is bracing for another drop. Although the numbers aren’t available yet, Isaac said, “we expect there will be another 9% or 10% decline.”
Issac estimated it will take three or four years to return to pre-pandemic listing.
“Once you’re in the hole, it seems very difficult to get out of it,” he said.
Dina Humble, vice president of teaching at Valley College, said the San Bernardino campus expects to rebound by 2024-25 after seeing enrollment in 2021-22 “about the same as the last year or a little less”. Enrollment at Valley College fell 15.6%.
Enrollment at its sister campus, Crafton Hills College, fell 10.7% last year. Keith Wurtz, the college’s vice president of teaching, said enrollment in 2021-22 will likely drop a little more, but he doesn’t expect enrollment to drop further.
“I think it’s a temporary problem,” he said. “I’m optimistic that we’ll see increases in the summer and fall.”
Isaac said the main factor behind declining enrollment at schools in Riverside, Norco and Moreno Valley was the arrival of the coronavirus.
“The pandemic has been a big shock,” he said. “We had to convert everything overnight to an online course.”
It was difficult for low-income students, many of whom had no place to study, he said. Others did not have adequate laptops for e-learning.
Then there were the economic impacts that hammered their families.
“What we’re seeing are major upheavals in their living situations,” said Hope, of Chaffey College. “A lot of them are couch surfing and don’t know where their next meal is coming from.”
Hope said a disproportionate number of students who dropped out were black and Latino men.
Jared Barnes, a 24-year-old Ontarian studying kinesiology at Chaffey, is one student who has been rocked by the pandemic.
Barnes, who is black, said he lost his job at a home decor store that was forced to close because it was deemed non-essential. He lost his apartment.
“I had to stay in my car and stay with friends for a while,” Barnes said.
His laptop was unreliable and he was unprepared for the move to online classes, so he dropped two classes.
But Barnes, who was playing forward on Chaffey’s basketball team, refused to give up.
“I lost my mother when I was young,” he said. “I really wanted to keep my head on track and make my mom proud.”
Things started to break in his path. Someone offered a room. He got a good working computer from college.
Now he will graduate with two associate degrees in May – in kinesiology and social behavioral science. He plans to transfer to La Verne University in the fall to pursue a career as a personal trainer.
Humble, of Valley College, said the pandemic had hammered students when many were the main breadwinners for their families.
“Some had to go to work,” she said. “As a result, they were unable to attend classes.”
Others couldn’t resist the urge for higher wages offered by warehouses, restaurants and retailers in the face of labor shortages.
“We think it was a big temptation,” Isaac said.
Warehouse jobs, in particular, have attracted prospective students, administrators said.
It’s not hard to see why, said Husing, the economist. Logistics companies added 50,925 jobs from 2019 to 2021 to reach 260,483, he said.
“The connection to logistics is possible simply because this sector has been responsible for job growth in this region,” Husing said. “This sector just exploded, and no other sectors are even close.”
Isaac, some students dropped out because they didn’t want to comply with coronavirus vaccination mandates.
Hope said other students were uncomfortable learning online and opted to delay classes until in-person instruction returns.
In response to declining enrollment, administrators are exploring ideas for attracting students.
Many colleges offer to pay 100% of the cost of student books.
“We try to remove as many barriers as possible,” Hope said. “A math book can cost $150.”
Chaffey College is offering shorter, condensed courses in response to student demand, Hope said. The traditional 17-week semester used to dominate course offerings, she says, but now most courses are 14 weeks or eight weeks long.
“Life happens,” Hope said. “And the longer the semester, the more likely something will happen in your life that will affect your education.”
Students are less likely to procrastinate — and fall behind — in shorter courses, Hope added.
“Students say they like the rhythm too,” she said. “They are not bored.”
At Valley College, Humble said the San Bernardino County District has introduced technology that connects students who study remotely with others who attend an in-person lecture and allows them to participate in discussions. This initiative was well received, she said.
The Riverside Community College district is preparing to target potential mature students, Isaac said.
“That’s a huge population that could benefit from a community college education,” he said.
Finally, as the pandemic begins to loosen its grip on the region, colleges are restoring in-person classes.
For example, 27% of classes at Chaffey currently have an in-person component, and that proportion will increase to 38% in the fall, Hope said. She said the back-to-school trend will spur a rebound in enrollment.