Enrollment in community colleges nationwide is crashing – a problem that began well before the pandemic. In California, community college enrollment is at a 30-year low of 1.8 million, down from 2.9 million enrollees in 2010.
According to a 2012 report from the 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, there is a need “to reimagine what these institutions are—and are capable of becoming.”
The report noted community colleges need to prepare their students for success. It cited the need for job preparation to align with a changing workplace and for better transitions between high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions.
In addition, community colleges were impacted by externalities including state funding cuts, the economy, and demographic changes — all of which added to enrollment decline.
Of course, the pandemic accelerated many of these trends and piled on a few more. Unprepared for remote learning, many students struggled academically. More young people are questioning the value of a higher ed degree – whether a two-year associate degree or a four-year baccalaureate degree. They opt to enter the job market right out of school, especially as employers – particularly in tech – offer workplace training programs that bypass the need for a degree.
The definition of student success at community colleges is also changing. While success still includes finding a job immediately after graduation or the ability to transfer to a four-year institution, community colleges must also ensure that students graduate with the least amount of time and money invested.
Despite the challenges and enrollment declines, community colleges’ benefits to society are widely recognized. They play a unique role in higher ed, giving diverse populations a pathway to new job opportunities or a four-year degree. They also serve as a gateway to the middle class. In California, 69% of college community students are of diverse ethnic backgrounds.
How to attract students back to community colleges
One approach that community colleges can adopt immediately is to take a digital-first approach to learn. Improving access to online learning opportunities can tackle the dual issues of affordability and flexibility, which are central to student success.
Affordability is the core issue for many students attending community colleges – and for those who drop out. We know that 42% of students in community colleges nationwide come from low-income families. A 2017 report reveals that approximately two-thirds of students who attended California’s community colleges or private for-profit two-year schools came from families with the lowest incomes.
Students, on average, spend about $1,200 on textbooks each year. Implementing an online learning enablement solution can bring down the cost of textbooks by hundreds of dollars per semester, which can make a huge difference for students who must otherwise choose between their textbooks and the basics, such as food, rent, or medicine.
We can urge lawmakers to expand California’s Zero Textbook Costs (ZTC) programs, eliminating all costs for required textbooks, workbooks, lab manuals, readers, or specialized software like online homework systems for specific courses. A state law (SB 1359) requires California community colleges to identify ZTC course sections.
Faculty can also be encouraged to find additional ways to bring their courses under the ZTC umbrella, such as adopting Open Educational Resources (OER). Schools should be encouraged to work with online learning solutions that embrace the intent of ZTC and only charge institutions for courses that use their material instead of charging them per credit hour, even for courses that are a part of the ZTC program.
The pandemic highlighted the need for more online learning options – including offering online course material. Students who attend community college are often not the traditional 18-year-old whose college expenses are paid for by parents or other family members or who have access to private student loans. Many are older, work full or part-time, and have family obligations. Programs that offer high flexibility, such as allowing students to attend classes purely online, in-person, or both online and in-person, can be particularly beneficial to students who need to care for children or elderly parents while working and attending classes.
Community colleges can also ensure student success by providing all attendees access to course materials on day one of class. Several studies support that students with access to course materials on the first day of class are more likely to pass a course – and, therefore, more likely to earn a degree. Equitable access programs can ensure that students get access to their course materials regardless of affordability challenges.
Dual enrollment – enabling high school students to take a course at a local community college and earn both high school and college credit – is the one bright spot in community college enrollment, with 88% of high schools offering some dual credit and 34% of high school students participating. Students involved in dual credit are more likely to finish high school, get better grades and earn college degrees. We need to expand dual enrollment programs to include schools in lower-income or under-represented communities.
Working closely with local employers, community colleges can offer apprenticeships and education in fields that are in demand to ensure graduates are prepared for jobs – while also ensuring that local businesses have the employees they need for future growth. In California, these may include construction, software engineering, field engineering, healthcare, and manufacturing apprenticeships.
Recent data from the American Association of Community Colleges confirm the vitality and importance of apprenticeship programs. Eighty percent of employers retained their apprentices upon completion of the program.
To attract students to community colleges, the institutions must develop curriculums that address local labor shortages, produce workers for high-growth industries and create affordable programs that allow for flexibility for non-traditional students.
About BibliU: EdTech innovator BibliU is defining the future of higher education by democratizing content accessibility. Designed to address the unique requirements of students, faculty, libraries and publishers, BibliU is a learning enablement platform that empowers higher education institutions to streamline their textbook and courseware workflows to achieve greater student outcomes, affordability and social mobility. With BibliU, colleges and universities can finally deliver on the promise of digitalization, guaranteeing all students have first-day access to the learning content they need. More information is available at www.bibliu.com.
About Shannon: Shannon Meadows has recently been transitioned to Non-Executive Director (NED) for BibliU. In her previous role, she served as Chief Revenue Officer and led the Sales and Customer Success organizations for BibliU. She is an industry expert in Ed Tech, Digital Publishing sales and go-to-market strategies. She has led companies in C-level roles in Sales, Marketing and Business Development, building several start-up businesses resulting in successful company equity events.
Story Angle: Community colleges across the country are failing, and California schools are facing unique challenges. The article should touch upon the issues the education system is currently facing, and discuss BibliU’s role in providing a solution. Through the use of digital courseware, schools can offer more affordable options, level the playing field on education resource accessibility – which helps schools better cater to/attract minority or underrepresented students – and better address student’s academic success and post-graduation employability.
See here for the latest news and stats on the state of community colleges
See here for a deeper dive into California community college education concerns
See here for data on nation-wide campus closures
Dave Sherwood is the CEO of BibliU.