Los Rios community colleges face enrollment slide as economy improves

Eduardo Ramos, center, has his photo ID picture taken on the first day of school at the Los Rios Community College District expansion in Elk Grove on Monday, August 26, 2013.
Eduardo Ramos, center, has his photo ID picture taken on the first day of school at the Los Rios Community College District expansion in Elk Grove on Monday, August 26, 2013.

The improved economy is taking a toll on the Los Rios Community College District. As more college-age adults have found jobs, enrollment has been flat or down for three straight years and shows no sign of changing course.

Los Rios Chancellor Brian King began meeting with members of his Cabinet this week to explore how to drive enrollment higher at the district’s four colleges and six educational centers. Unless enrollment recovers, the district serving the Sacramento region can expect to lose some of its state funding.

“Our fall semester enrollment is down approximately 5 percent compared to last year,” King said last month in a memo to nearly 5,000 Los Rios faculty and staff members, including student employees. “Though this (fluctuation) is a common trend in terms of student behavior at this point in the enrollment cycle, we cannot be certain that this gap will close before the fall semester ends.”

A similar scenario is playing out across the state, where fully half of California’s 72 community college districts face similar circumstances, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Los Rios received $283 million in 2015-16, and more than 80 percent of funds from the state are based on enrollment. It’s not clear how Los Rios would absorb a budget cut; King said it would be premature to speculate.

“We’re not on a cliff,” King said. “We won’t have to make knee-jerk decisions. We want to convey a sense of urgency, but not a sense of panic.”

Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, said regional differences in the economy have translated into flat or reduced enrollment in the Bay Area, the Sacramento region and farther north. Demand is higher, however, in the San Diego area, Los Angeles and parts of the Inland Empire.

“Community colleges work counter-cyclically,” he said. “So community college enrollment tends to decline when the economy strengthens.”

During the height of the recession, students hoping Los Rios could help them forge new paths into the job market instead found classes filled to the max and wait lists that were off the charts. In fall 2013, more than 53,000 students were on such lists, including 22,000 at American River College, more than at any other community college in the state.

Today, the trends have reversed. The district offers more for-credit classes than it has in years, but enrollment hasn’t kept pace, according to state data. Many college-age adults have taken jobs. Los Rios officials say they are still trying to vanquish recession-era perceptions of overflow classes.

Demographics have also played a role. In the Sacramento area, the number of high school graduates has stagnated, Los Rios’ Office of Institutional Research reports. According to the research, fewer than 19,700 students are forecast to graduate within the coming year in the Los Rios service area, little changed from 2009.

“In the long term, we have to give thought as a state about how to provide adequate support through good times and bad,” King said.

Los Rios has been campaigning for higher enrollment in recent years. Outreach specialists at the district’s colleges – American River, Sacramento City, Cosumnes River and Folsom Lake – have stepped up their connections with K-12 districts to help more high school seniors earn college credit, according to Los Rios spokesman Mitchel Benson. The district added safety nets, including counselors, to help new college students better achieve their goals. And it has bolstered public outreach and marketing campaigns.

Benson said after the chancellor’s Cabinet meeting that the district will continue to focus on improving paths to academic degrees and to career technical certificates, to help align curricula to accommodate transfers to four-year colleges and to help high school students prepare for college.

“Everybody agreed this is definitely an all-hands-on-deck opportunity,” Benson said. “It’s not just the marketing and chancellor’s responsibility, it’s everybody’s responsibility to try to improve the picture going forward. The silver lining is we have a fair amount of capacity. We have opportunities for students who are aware they can enroll.”

Regardless of funding, costs are continuing to rise, Benson said. He cited higher district contributions toward underfunded pensions in the California State Teachers’ Retirement System and California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Salaries are higher because employees received long-awaited pay raises after the recession.

About 970 full-time faculty members and 1,500 adjunct faculty members in the district’s largest labor group, the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers, received two raises, 0.7 percent in 2014-15 and 3.3 percent 2015-16, their first increases in nearly a decade. The district’s other large labor group, the Los Rios Classified Employees Association, with about 780 members, received a 2.4 percent increase in 2014-15 and another 5 percent last year. Classified workers’ previous wage increase came in 2007-08.

Dean Murakami, president of the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers, said his labor group expects to avoid job cuts.

“We’ll do the best we can in terms of protecting our faculty,” he said. “I think if there is a reduction, it will be a relatively small percentage. We might have to become a more efficient system.”

Mario Rodriguez, vice chancellor for California Community Colleges, said districts are pushing to improve retention of disadvantaged students, including more counseling, tutoring and “wraparound services” to support “whatever students need to succeed.”

“I personally and professionally believe if we get community colleges right, California will have a fantastic future,” Rodriguez said. “If we don’t, we’re going to have a harder time being competitive in this global economy.”