Enrollment rates at Orange County’s community colleges experienced a steep decline for the second consecutive year.
The area’s nine community colleges reported total enrollment fell 10% to 123,259. Last year, the decline was 21%.
The decline is almost three times the rate nationally, where community college enrollment is down 3.5% nationwide, according to the National Clearinghouse Research Center.
Saddleback College in Mission Viejo faced the steepest drop of full-time students, 38% to 6,603.
“In general, our students tend to come from less privileged households; many had to drop out to support family members during this time—and a lot of our students actually got COVID themselves,” Saddleback President Elliot Stern told the Business Journal.
“From a fundamental point, our students are far more vulnerable than four-year university students.”
The falloff in the combined full and part-time enrollment was widespread as eight of the nine colleges reported declines, five topping 10%.
Biggest decreases were 19% at Coastline College and 16% at Golden West College, both in the North Orange County district.
The only college that increased its full-time enrollment was Orange Coast College, which reported 3.1% to 6,839.
Santa Ana College saw a large influx of part-time students, increasing 23% to 12,460, whereas their full-time students dropped 33% to 3,750.
The colleges employ about 1,737 full-time faculty and 4,528 part-time faculty.
The current fall is an anomaly compared to other recessions, according to nonprofit newsroom The Hetchinger Report, which said community college admissions tend to increase during recessions.
In 2008, it was older students leading the surge in community college admissions. This time, it’s younger students who are not coming back.
According to Stern, when Saddleback College went completely online, the school had to deploy 1,000 computers by drive-thru to students who did not have the technology at home to complete their work.
“It showed us how much we needed to be enlightened about the non-academic barriers our students face,” he added.
About 10% to as many as 30% of Saddleback students may have gotten COVID-19, he said.
“Think about the impact on their lives and their families’ lives,” Stern said. “I think you can account for the decline just by that alone.”
Currently, Saddleback is using a hybrid model with 60% in class and 40% online.
Stern downplayed the notion that students are dropping out because of less interest in higher-education.
“It’s more evidence of life getting in the way,” he said, referring to COVID.
“Whether or not we’re seeing a true questioning of higher education for the long haul is a question to be answered over the next several years,” Stern said.