By Dante Motley
July 25, 2022
Los Rios Community College District is cutting planned classes for the fall as it aligns its offering with the steep drop in enrollment that unfolded during the coronavirus pandemic.
Over the past two years, enrollment at Los Rios’s four colleges — American River, Cosumnes River, Folsom Lake and Sacramento City — plunged by 17% from the 70,000 full- and part-time students it serves in a typical year. It’s a trend unfolding at community colleges across the country, where a hot U.S. labor market could be leading people to choose jobs over school.
The district now is reviewing which classes are especially under-enrolled; it cuts classes using a variety of criteria in order to properly cope with the lower influx of students while attempting to reduce harm to the education it provides.
“We’re not cutting class because we are out of money, we are cutting class because students are just not signing up for some of the sections,” said Mario Rodriguez, vice chancellor of finance and administration for Los Rios.
All of Los Rios campuses have had to readdress their course lists in response to enrollment. Rodriguez said enrollment losses appear to be leveling off starting in the fall 2022 term, which starts Aug. 20, but says it is too early to tell.
Rodriguez notes that Los Rios is doing better in enrollment than the average community college in California. Statewide, just from 2018 to 2020 — the most recent numbers available — community college enrollment in California dove from 2,144,315 to 2,090,635. The California Community College system received $150 million in the new state budget to help with enrollment growth and retention rates.
American River College looked to cut any classes with five or fewer students in their math department, according to an email obtained by The Sacramento Bee. But the criteria for cutting courses vary by program and need, said Scott Crow, public information officer for ARC.
Melanie Dixon, the president of ARC, said that some programs like labs or hands-on programs are sustainable and necessary even at five students, but in other programs, five students in a section might just be “awkward.”
CALIFORNIA’S HIGH COST OF LIVING
Dixon also said that while some programs like apprenticeships are rising in numbers, a lot of programs just aren’t recovering as well.
“I think the goal would be you’re trying to bring our students back to the grounds, ensuring that there can be highly successful and have that high tech,” Dixon said. “And so we’re noticing that that’s not necessarily the interest right now for the students. And we presume that that’s the surge and kind of retraction of the different variants of COVID.”
The drop in community college enrollment is broadly attributed to a couple of things, according to Rodriguez. They first saw a drop in enrollment during the start of the pandemic because many service jobs were no longer available — those jobs being what many students used to support themselves.
The pandemic also caused public health concerns for many students. Rodriguez says that while Los Rios has done its best to provide options like remote and hybrid learning, they still see public health concerns as a reason why some students haven’t enrolled or returned.
Now, with unemployment reaching near pre-pandemic lows, a portion of potential community college students is lured away by job opportunities. This is exacerbated by California’s high cost of living, which only makes the jobs more appealing.
SMALLER CLASS SIZES
Rodriguez believes that the consequence of this lower enrollment is ultimately beneficial to the students due to the low faculty-to-student ratio.
“You’ll have more personalized education with your instructor,” he said. “We have more counselors right now to serve the students we’re than we’ve ever had before. We have more tutoring hours than we’ve had before. We’re giving out more grants and aids this upcoming year than we ever had before. So this is the best time to be a Los Rios student.”
But the enrollment issue is also affecting faculty. In the email detailing how the math department at ARC would have to drop classes with five or fewer students enrolled, Dean of Mathematics and Statistics Adam Windham explained how classes would be reassigned, prioritizing full-time faculty.
“I know this is not good news for anyone: many full-time faculty will be teaching classes that they had not planned to teach, in a mode they would not prefer,” The email read. “Many adjunct faculty, some of whom have taught at ARC for decades, will not have an assignment at all. There is no good way to spin this, I’m afraid: the impact that these enrollment reductions will have on our department are catastrophic, and will change the face of our department permanently.”
That said, in order to prevent any further damage, Dixon says that they are “aggressively doing outreach” to increase enrollment through things like billboards and social media. She also said that all of the Los Rios colleges are working with a consultant to create an outreach program.
Dante Motley is a summer reporting intern for The Sacramento Bee originally from Texas. He is a junior at Yale University where he studies anthropology and writes for the Yale Daily News.