Enrollment at local community colleges continues to fall behind during the pandemic

SANTA MARIA, Calif. — The COVID-19 pandemic continues to negatively impact community college enrollment nationally, as well as locally.

According to data recently released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, community college enrollment has fallen more than 13% nationwide since 2019.

On the central coast, similar numbers are reported from all local schools.

Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria reports enrollment has increased about 20% during the pandemic.

“Our enrollment is like the rest of the nation,” said Allan Hancock College superintendent/president Kevin Walthers. Our listings are far from pre-pandemic. We know part of this has to do with student income. There’s new research coming out this week on how the cost of education, or at least the perception of the cost of education, is really keeping students from coming to school.”

In San Luis Obispo, Cuesta College today entered its first day of the spring semester with enrollment down about 13% from pre-pandemic numbers.

“We are definitely not where we were before the pandemic,” Cuesta College Superintendent/President Jill Stearns said. “At the start of the pandemic, we weren’t seeing the reduction in enrollment that many of our sister colleges were experiencing, but at this point I would say that while we still haven’t been hit as hard as some, we are definitely seeing a significant drop in our student enrollment.

At Santa Barbara City College, which began the spring semester on Tuesday using primarily a distance learning format, it reports an approximately 17% drop in enrollment since the start of the spring 2020 semester.

Educators at both colleges say a number of factors are to blame for the steep decline.

“For a lot of our students, they’re young and $18 an hour seems like a pretty good salary, so they’re taking jobs,” Walthers said. “Some students are scared of college costs. Some students are nervous about Covid. Some students are frustrated coming to class in person one week and not the next week, so I think once we get a little more stability in there, we’ll see those students come back.”

Falling enrollment is a major concern for educators worried about the long-term effects the pandemic could have.

“It’s huge for the community,” Walthers said. “We’re really getting to the point of losing half a generation of students and we know that students graduating from our programs are making $9,000 more than before they came just because they have a degree. It’s so important for these students for their long-term future of being in the classroom.”

Stearns added that enrollment is also paramount to the number of educational opportunities that are available to students across all of the school’s different campuses.

“It’s important that we maintain our institutional size so that we can maintain the fullness of our curriculum and the variety of offerings we provide to our community,” Stearns said.

While Cuesta and Santa Barbara City College began the spring semester on Tuesday, Hancock begins classes next Monday, January 24.

Registration for the spring semester remains open for Hancock College students. For more information, click here.