During the recession, as students flooded Sacramento-area community colleges in a bid to learn new trades and pursue new careers, many were thwarted by state spending cuts, deep wait lists and crowded classrooms. Now that state funding is flowing anew, however, enrollment has fallen.
In the Sierra Community College District, overall student counts in each of the last three years receded to levels not seen since fall 2005. In the Los Rios Community College District in the Sacramento region and Yuba Community College District based in Marysville, the number of students last autumn fell to the lowest levels in at least a decade, according to California Community Colleges data.
Statewide, enrollment dropped below 1.6 million for each of the last three years, thresholds last seen in the late 1990s. At the peak in 2008, 1.8 million students attended the state’s community colleges.
Several factors have contributed to the trend, officials said, but chief among them is the departure of many students who snapped up jobs as the economy recovered. That helped cut the ranks of full-time students. And many of those who remained are taking fewer courses. The statewide unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent in August.
At the same time, some students may have grown frustrated by the difficulty they had in getting into classes during the lean years.
“We had the most successful anti-marketing campaign,” Los Rios spokesman Mitchel Benson said. Now, after a few years of improved funding, the district is spending time and money to encourage students to enroll, he said.
The space challenges haven’t entirely lifted.
In the Sierra district, Mandy Davies, vice president of student services, told members of the Academic Senate this month that entry-level and prerequisite classes in math and English were filled this fall before registration ended for continuing students, and many classes started the semester with wait lists of up to the maximum 20 students each.
“We wanted the wait list to be viable but also small enough that students have a reasonable chance” of getting accepted in the high-turnover early days of a class, Davies said.
We have a shortage of individuals able to teach math. All of the colleges would tell you that.
Sierra Community College District President Willy Duncan
Luke Reed, 20, is a full-time student at Sierra College in Rocklin. He said last week he had to wait for space to open in a pre-calculus class, an introduction to composition class and a chemistry class. He managed to get into the math and English slots but not the chemistry class. He got the disappointing news from the instructor on the second day of the course.
“I was a little too far down the wait list to actually get a spot in the class,” said Reed, who lives in Penryn.
Second-year student Roseline Aka, 19, said she was alarmed last year, her first at Sierra College, after she landed on wait lists for two classes. She managed to get into both. So this semester, when her name was placed on the wait list for an English 1B class, she said she wasn’t worried.
“I got in on the first day on all the classes I’ve been wait-listed,” said Aka, of Sacramento.
Part of the problem is finding instructors with the right qualifications.
Davies said the issue was brought to Sierra’s Academic Senate because the college is starting to look at enrollment data and prioritize full-time hires. “We’re in competition with other colleges,” she said, “in particular for math and science faculty.”
The district has been analyzing course enrollment over the last two months to identify the classes that are most popular. Still, there are practical obstacles to meeting the demand.
“We tried to expand our offering in math over the summer,” said Sierra district President Willy Duncan. “Quite frankly, we couldn’t find faculty. The minimum qualification is a master’s (degree) in math. We have a shortage of individuals able to teach math. All of the colleges would tell you that.”
Benson said Los Rios does have “pinch points,” but the district is taking action. “Not only are we creating more courses, but we’re focused on trying to get more math and hard science faculty to address those concerns.”
This academic year, Los Rios has nearly doubled teacher hiring, including eight full-time math faculty members and eight full-time English instructors. Most of the math and English hires represent added positions, district officials say.
Los Rios Community College District had 73,092 students last fall, down 15 percent from 2009 peak.
Yuba Community College District had 9,082 students last fall, nearly 21 percent below 2008 peak.
In an effort to shift more money to core classes that help students transfer or graduate, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors in 2012 restricted how often students can retake “enrichment” classes. That, in turn, eliminated a share of part-time students, particularly at the Yuba Community College District, which serves large rural areas.
Those limits “drove away enrichment learners,” said Yuba district Chancellor Douglas Houston. “So many of these were in the studio arts, performing arts, language and literature courses. We essentially closed the door to students who arguably needed our services less than core students.”
Yuba had 9,082 students last fall, nearly 21 percent below its 2008 peak. In the last five years, the number of part-time students in the Yuba district declined by a greater rate than for other Sacramento-area districts.
The rural nature of much of the area served by Yuba district campuses – all of Colusa, Yuba and Sutter counties and portions of five others – means the district does not have easy access to a home-grown population of qualified instructors, Houston said. And, he said, it does not have adequate means to attract tenure-track faculty from outside the area.
“That puts even more pressure on our ability to staff what are now very high-demand math and English classes,” he said, “especially basic and remedial.”
Larry Galizio, president of the Community College League of California, said it’s not surprising that enrollment has suffered in California’s 72 community college districts. “You have to counter four to five years of news that the (community college) doors are not open with, ‘Hey, we are now open,’ ” he said. “So it’s going to take some time.”