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Community college enrollment drops by double digits on some campuses; some call it a "crisis"

Students walk on campus at West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.
Susanica Tam/For KPCC
Students walk on campus at West Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, Calif. on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016.

About half of California's 114 community colleges are seeing enrollment drops this year, state education officials say – prompting calls for new recruitment tactics from some faculty and reassurances from administrators. 

Administrators say three of the nine campuses in the L.A. Community College District are facing double digit enrollment drops this year.

Most of the blame for the enrollment decline, officials said, should be laid on the improving economy. In good economic times, they argued, many people do not enroll in community colleges to improve their job skills.

But Los Angeles community college faculty leaders said they’ve been ringing the enrollment decline alarm for a few years for administrators to improve the way they attract students.

“Unfortunately we’ve not seen those plans and strategies and tactics come about. So now we’re in a crisis and hopefully our bell will be heard now,” said Joanne Waddell, president of the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild.

College officials say they’re on it.

“We are literally working on this day and night and have been some time,” said L.A. City College vice president Dan Walden.

The enrollment decline is one of the reasons colleges have been pushing recent policy initiatives such as free college tuition “promise” programs and partnerships with school districts to offer community college classes on high school campuses.

Community colleges are funded based on a formula that calculates part time and full time students. Fewer students mean less funding.

“We’ll have less money to offer classes, and we’ll have less resources available, so yeah, it’ll have a direct impact on students,” Walden said.

But that wouldn’t happen immediately after enrollment drops, he said, because the state gives community colleges a year to turn around enrollment decreases.

His campus has been taking advantage of that time to increase dual enrollment classes at area high schools. His campus, he said, is offering 68 classes at high schools this year, 16 more than last year. The campus budgeted $1 million dollars on student recruitment efforts and $100,000 for marketing such as ads in newspapers.

State officials are also stepping in to help.

The chancellor’s office is spending $11 million this fiscal year on marketing to help colleges raise their visibility, through ads on Pandora, for example, and by hiring people to attend the Wango Tango concert last May in Carson to talk up community colleges in the area.

“I wouldn’t say, necessarily, this is crisis mode,” said Mario Rodriguez, Vice Chancellor of College Finance and Facilities for the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.

There are other factors out of the hands of colleges that are contributing to the enrollment drop, Rodriguez aid, such as dropping birth rates, rising housing costs, and the lower unemployment rates.

But community colleges still have to work to research the higher education needs of their surrounding communities.

“It’s important for them to take the problem seriously and for them to do the best they can to serve their community,” Rodriguez said.