Long Beach City College student Shmaria Straley, 28, had been looking forward to seeing the faces of her fellow students this year after the college resumed some of its in-person learning.
But strolling around the Pacific Coast campus on Thursday afternoon, she said the place looked more like a ghost town.
“It’s been really hard to find people to socialize with,” she said. “That’s what I miss.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, college students are now returning to campuses after more than a year of online learning. But as the pandemic eases, community colleges across the nation are seeing a concerning trend—fewer students are enrolling.
Nationwide, community college enrollment dropped 15% from fall 2019 to fall 2021, according to a November report from the National Student Clearninghouse. The numbers showed that the two-year schools were hit the hardest, while all colleges and four-year universities saw only slight decreases.
And California has been hit even harder. The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office in a March memo said its fall 2021 headcount is down 20% compared to 2019.
While some are taking time off from school due to challenges in the pandemic, others are lured by a booming job market. Community college enrollment typically sees boosts during a recession.
At Long Beach City College, 23,338 students enrolled in fall 2021, compared to 25,966 in 2019, for a 10% decrease. Last fall’s enrollment was even lower than 2020, when 24,458 students enrolled.
“We’ve definitely seen a decline similar to what other campuses have seen,” said Lee Douglas, the college’s vice president of Academic Affairs. “It’s pretty consistent in that if you have a good economy, it affects enrollment because if people have jobs they’re not necessarily going to school.”
The drop has especially impacted students of color.
Latino students, which make up the college’s largest population, saw a 13% decline, from 14,350 in fall 2019 to 12,474 in 2021. Enrollment for Black students decreased 8% from 2,942 to 2,709.
White students, on the other hand, saw a 3% increase from 3,810 to 3,930, while Asian students saw a 22% decrease from 1,723 to 1,388.
The trends also reflect a declining population, as fewer students enroll in K-12 schools.
Last year, California lawmakers approved $120 million to help the public two-year college system bring back more students after enrollment plummeted. But the results so far have been mixed, with some campuses reporting small increases, while others are still struggling, according to CalMatters.
Bolstered by state and federal funding, Douglas said Long Beach City College is ramping up its efforts to enroll more students with a special team focused on reengagement efforts.
The team regularly calls students who have dropped out to let them know about financial aid and other incentives, and they also send fliers and emails with school schedules and other resources.
Meanwhile, the college is working on improving engagement for students in class and online with a Cultural Curriculum Audit for faculty that focuses on equity and student support.
After having mostly remote courses in the height of the pandemic, the college is planning to offer 60% of its courses in person this fall, which its hopes will lure more students.
In another challenge, the college last semester saw a boost in online enrollment, but some of those students were fake, Douglas said.
Community colleges across the state have seen an increase in fake student bots enrolling for online courses in an effort to game the financial aid system. The Los Angeles Times reported in August that thousands of bots had enrolled in community college classes across California and that more than 65,000 applied for financial aid.
The college system has since added security measures including a multi-factor verification system and bot detection software, but the scale of the problem remains unclear.
As for the real students, some say they’re still struggling with challenges in the pandemic.
For Gloria Medina, 22, taking a break from school during the pandemic was never an option, as classes for her construction technology major were always held in-person. But she said she is still trying to convince her boyfriend to go back to school at Cerritos College after he stopped going in 2020.
“Teachers were having a hard time teaching classes online and he wasn’t learning anything,” she said.
For psychology major Raymond Ables, 23, the toughest part about coming back to campus after the pandemic was rebuilding his social skills.
“You forget what it’s like to connect with people,” he said.