During the recession, community college students complained of deep wait lists and crowded classrooms, symptoms typical of a struggling economy.
As more people find jobs, however, Folsom Lake College and other Los Rios Community College District campuses are seeing the opposite trend.
Enrollment this spring is down at all four Los Rios campuses, led by 7.2 percent at Folsom Lake College and 5.1 percent at Sacramento City College. Some classes, such as humanities and fine arts, are below expectations.
“There was the drumbeat that went on and on for several years that basically said there is no room at the inn,” said Mitchel Benson, spokesman for the district. He said a 2012 tax hike, Proposition 30, was “a way to relieve some of the stress” and helped colleges begin restoring classes.
Alyssa Weir-Gonzalez, 23, signed up at Sacramento City College in 2012 “but I wasn’t able to get into a single class,” she said last week at the school. “There were no open classes. They were all wait-listed.”
Weir-Gonzalez, who wants to work with children who have special nutritional needs, said she started over last fall and had a far easier time getting classes.
Statewide in the last five years, enrollment dipped by nearly 600,000 students to 2.1 million, according to data from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. Enrollment spiked in 2009 in the depths of the recession as students flocked to community colleges for retraining or new studies as they lost their jobs, said Hans Johnson, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
But seasonally adjusted unemployment in California has dropped from 12.4 percent in the worst months of 2010 to 8 percent in February.
“We know that employment numbers are getting better,” Johnson said. “The number of people getting laid off has gone down. So that, certainly, a decline in supply is very consistent with that story.”
Educators say years of shrinking college offerings, long wait lists and continued cuts in state funding played a role in discouraging would-be students. In addition, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors in 2012 imposed restrictions on repeatedly taking the same recreational classes.
Paul Steenhausen, a higher-education specialist at the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said this year’s declining enrollment is being felt in community colleges across California and the nation. More than a third of the state’s 72 community college districts are on track to fall below their enrollment goals or already failed to meet those goals in a recent prior year, he said.
Districts that fall short face a state funding cut in the subsequent year.
Starting in late December, Los Rios conducted its first substantial student enrollment and marketing effort since about 2006. The exclusively digital campaign, which continued to early February, was aimed largely at students aged 18 to 24, who make up the bulk of the enrollment, Benson said.
Amanda Davis, spokeswoman for Sacramento City College, said the aim is to “get the message out: ‘We’re still here. We have a seat available for you.’ ”
At Folsom Lake College, President Rachel Rosenthal said the college this year offered the same level of offerings as it did in 2012-13.
“We were excited to do that following several years of forced reductions in the number of classes offered,” Rosenthal said. “To our surprise, our student enrollment has been lower than we anticipated.”
Rosenthal went on a road show, visiting Rotary Clubs, chambers of commerce and other groups. It is an annual exercise, she said. But this year the message was slightly different – that community colleges now are better prepared to provide students with a long-term career advantage through education.
“Yes. Come back,” Rosenthal said, reciting her pitch. Those interested in pursuing a technical certificate to become a welder or Emergency Medical Technician, earning an associate degree or taking classes for transfer to a four-year college will have an easier time, she said.
Expansion will help make that possible. A new satellite campus for the college, the Rancho Cordova Center, is set to break ground at the northwest corner of Paseo Drive and Folsom Boulevard at the end of this month.
The existing satellite about 2 miles to the south serves 750 students a semester, Rosenthal said. When the new Rancho Cordova Center opens in fall 2015, Rosenthal said, enrollment is projected to triple.
Patrick Perry, vice chancellor for technology research and information systems for California Community Colleges, said growth will take time, in part because high schools are graduating smaller senior classes.
“We’ve had a number of consecutive years of much smaller first-time freshmen cohorts rolling through. They become the students of tomorrow,” he said. “So you just can’t replace everything with one or two extremely large freshmen classes. It’s a slower growth as you move forward.”