Rodríguez: Enrollment is rebounding at San Jose community colleges
San Jose City College student Elton Bangu is pictured in this file photo.

    It is no secret that California Community Colleges experienced a significant decline in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are numerous reasons for this and just as many different ways the state’s 116 community colleges are working to address the decline.

    Community colleges play a vital role in our local and regional economies, and it’s important that we rebuild the pipeline of highly qualified and well-trained workers coming from community colleges and entering our workforce.

    At San Jose City College (SJCC) and Evergreen Valley College (EVC) we also saw significant declines in enrollment during the pandemic, but this spring our enrollment has rebounded. Our preliminary data indicate a large increase over last spring—the first semester to show a year-over-year increase since the start of the pandemic.

    With leadership beginning with our Board of Trustees, regaining lost enrollment has been a point of emphasis throughout San Jose – Evergreen Community College District this academic year. We have invested significant time and energy into innovative recruitment and retention strategies that have clearly had an impact.

    Among the successful strategies was a free tuition program that provided free tuition and zero fees to qualifying students enrolled in at least six units at EVC or SJCC. At EVC, students taking 15 or more units also received up to $1,500 toward textbooks and course materials.

    A statewide survey of students conducted last fall found that nearly one-third of prospective new students and previously enrolled students said they could not afford college. The free tuition program addresses the issue of affordability for many local students.

    Enrollments in our district have increased across fields of study and among all racial and ethnic groups. About one-third of courses remain online in response to student feedback. We know from surveys that our students want options, so we have built our schedule with intention to make sure we are meeting the needs of our entire community.

    While the sizeable enrollment increases we are seeing locally this spring may be outliers, many community colleges across the state and nation are also seeing their enrollment go up—or at least begin to flatten out—this spring.

    Despite these increases, however, there are some who feel that colleges have not done enough to regain lost enrollments. In fact, during a recent state budget briefing call with the California Department of Finance (DOF), a DOF staff member indicated that they had heard anecdotally that some college presidents had not been focused on improving enrollment.

    This claim is blatantly false and patently absurd in a state where colleges are largely funded based on enrollment. I have had conversations with many community college executives from around the state and every one of them has indicated that increasing enrollment is one of their priorities. It is concerning that DOF staff would make such claims without providing any evidence to support them.

    Understanding the importance of increasing community college enrollment, Gov. Gavin Newsom in January included $200 million in one-time funding for enrollment and recruitment in his budget proposal. Unfortunately, the governor called for that money to be repurposed from a fund for deferred maintenance and the purchase of instructional equipment.

    Although well-intentioned, using deferred maintenance and instructional equipment funds to support enrollment strategies could have unintended consequences, particularly for the many districts that have already invested in planning for deferred maintenance projects or instructional equipment purchases.

    In order to keep the statewide enrollment improvements on track while ensuring that students are learning in safe and modern facilities with state-of-the-art equipment, I urge the governor and legislature to work together to create a solution where enrollment growth can be prioritized, but not at the cost of jeopardizing deferred maintenance, instructional equipment, and other necessary items.

    San José Spotlight columnist Raúl Rodríguez is Interim Chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]

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