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The Impact of COVID-19 on Community College Enrollment and Student Success

Community colleges play a vital role in the U.S. higher education system, enrolling nearly half of all students attending public institutions and a majority of all students of color. They provide workforce training and often serve as a gateway to four-year colleges and universities. A recent study by George Bulman and Robert Fairlie at the University of California, Santa Cruz, explored how the pandemic affected both enrollment and student success in California’s community colleges.

For this study, the researchers used administrative data covering all students and courses from the California Community College System with enrollment data from the past three years.Similar to the national trends, enrollment in California’s community colleges decreased substantially from fall 2019 to fall 2021, losing nearly 300,000 students or 17 percent, with the largest drop occurring during fall 2020, the study found. African American and Latino students experienced the largest declines in enrollment, dropping 20 percent and 18 percent respectively, from fall 2019 to fall 2021.

Students continuing with their education made up the largest share of the enrollment declines, compared to first-time students. Additionally, the researchers found that enrollment declines occurred across all schools, regardless of their online presence prior to the pandemic, and across both vocational and academic courses. Certain fields, however, experienced larger declines in students, such as education, interdisciplinary studies, and engineering and industrial technologies.

The researchers also examined student outcomes, and found that student course loads were similar before and during the pandemic, but course completion rates decreased. Grades, on the other hand, increased.

With so many students attending community colleges, the short-term enrollment declines during the pandemic could have longstanding effects on educational attainment and subsequently the labor market. While enrollment could rebound, the fall 2021 data did not suggest a “return to normal;” that may require additional policy efforts, such as changes in tuition or financial aid.