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Community College Enrollment Drops, Raising Concerns for California’s Economy

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Students marched from several San Francisco city college campuses, to Mission High school to ask students to join them on their march to city hall, where they held a rally of several hundred people. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
Students marched from several San Francisco City College campuses to City Hall, where they held a rally of several hundred people. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

By Charla Bear, KQED

College enrollment rates have swelled across the nation during the Great Recession, but not in California. Researchers with the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) found that budget cuts to the state's community colleges over the past few years have shut out nearly 600,000 prospective students. That has left enrollment in the nation's largest public higher education system at a 20-year low.

Sarah Bohn, lead researcher of a new report by PPIC, added that enrollment in the University of California and California State University systems has declined during the same period. The drop is "troubling," she said,  for a state that needs more college-educated workers for its increasingly high-tech economy.

"We've seen an increase in the fraction of students in California that are graduating from high school, but at the same time we haven't seen a corresponding increase in those who are attending college at any level within the state," she said. "It really raises concern about are these students going to college at all?"

The PPIC findings mirror figures reported by the Community College Chancellor's Office, which tallied enrollment throughout the system at 2.4 million students in 2011-12, down from 2.9 million students in 2008-09.


PPIC's report links the falling enrollment directly to budget cuts. It found the state's community colleges lost more than $1.5 billion in funding between 2007–08 and 2011–12. In response, administrators have slashed the number of courses and laid off faculty and staff.


The reductions have taken the largest toll on young students trying to enter community colleges for the first time and older students attempting to return for retraining.

"Colleges across the state have prioritized enrollments for continuing students, so those who are in the system already, and that appears to be serving those continuing students well," Bohn said.

Continuing students represent one of the few bright spots in the report. The data suggest they've been succeeding at higher rates since the recession started. The findings show more of them are completing a course, earning passing grades, and successfully transferring to four-year colleges or universities.

"If it's harder to get into a course, it increases ... the incentive to stay in that course and do well so you don't have to retake it," Bohn said.

The report also found that the cutbacks do not appear to have affected any particular ethnic or racial group disproportionately.


Community colleges could be able to restore some services next year. The governor proposed sending an additional $210 million to the system after voters passed Proposition 30.

Bohn said that would help, but she doubted it would be enough to boost enrollment back to pre-recession levels.

"If the goal is to maintain access and create the skilled workforce that the state needs, we need to really think about how to restore funding," she said.

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