California must reverse community college enrollment decline

Enrollment at California’s 116 community colleges has fallen from the pre-pandemic peak of 2.1 million to 1.8 million, a decline of over 14%. It is critical that enrollment increases in the nation’s largest higher education system. Community colleges provide zero to low-cost quality education that gives students from struggling to middle-income families the skills needed to make a decent and meaningful living. If enrollment continues to decline, more Californians will miss out on the American promise than ever before.

How to increase enrollment at community colleges? As a math professor at San Jose City College (SJCC), I have three ideas based on my experience with students.

First, widen the scope of Community College’s High School Dual or Concurrent Enrollment.

In the summer of 2022, I had the privilege of teaching math at SJCC’s Milpitas extension, a collaboration between the Milpitas Unified School District and SJCC. To see students from 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th grades earning college credits while attending high school to get a head start in their college careers was inspiring. We had animated discussions about applying quadratic equations to describe the arc of a baseball, exponential functions to describe the growth of viruses and probability to quantify uncertainty.

As expected, some dual-enrollment students attend SJCC after graduating from high school each year. While many community colleges have similar collaborations with their local high schools, Kern County Community College District spanning the San Joaquin Valley, eastern Sierra and Mojave Desert being one of the largest, there remains room for growth. SJCC, for instance, can collaborate with more local schools through an effective outreach program to ensure a steady stream of new students.

Second, improve the quality of college websites.

This seems obvious but is often overlooked. Online users, particularly prospective or current students, spend on average three minutes and visit 2-3 pages per session during which they either find what they are looking for or they leave. Many community college websites are clunky and confusing. Finding information often turns into a wild-goose chase. Students complain, and I verified it myself, that it is easier to retrieve information from the SJCC website through Google than through the website itself.

Effective websites have no clutter and have elements that spark digital joy, such as easy navigation, mobile friendly, fewest clicks for information and accessibility for all. Build coherent websites, and they will come.

Third, California’s community colleges must become equal partners to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. With a population of just over 39 million and an estimated GDP of about $4 trillion, California is poised to overtake Germany as the fourth-largest economy in the world, behind only the United States, China and Japan.

California’s economy has a strong positive correlation with the quality of education it offers its residents. While the eight-campus UC and 23-campus CSU systems have a combined student population of about 750,000 from relatively well-to-do families, our 116 community colleges educate more than double that many students.

California’s 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education that vastly privileges UCs and CSUs over community colleges is obsolete. Technology has transformed teaching and learning and the dynamics between research and career. To paraphrase Dorothy, “Toto, I have a feeling we are not in the ‘60s anymore.”

California’s community colleges do the heavy lifting of educating most of its students beyond high schools, especially those from disadvantaged families. By offering baccalaureate degrees without any constraints from UCs and CSUs, for example, community colleges can attract more students, one of the ways to ensure that the Golden State will continue to flourish for decades to come.

Hasan Zillur Rahim is a professor of mathematics at San Jose City College.

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