Ashley Santos celebrated her last day at Berkeley City College at home with her mother and four siblings last May. After three years, Santos had finally achieved her dream: In the fall, she would transfer to UC Berkeley to pursue her bachelor’s degree in data science.
Getting there wasn’t easy. The pandemic made attending online classes next to impossible.
To help out her family, Santos took on additional responsibilities caring for her siblings and maintained two jobs, one as an assistant counselor at BCC and another as a stylist at Banana Republic Factory in Emeryville. Because she shared a bedroom with her two siblings, Santos resorted to taking Zoom calls in the bathroom.
“I really wanted to take the semester off,” Santos said, referring to fall 2020. “But I’d heard too many people take breaks and never go back.” Motivated to transfer to a four-year university, Santos pushed herself and earned the best grades — all As — of her college career so far.
Success stories like Santos’ are becoming increasingly rare. Enrollment numbers at community colleges throughout California have been in a pandemic-induced decline. Since fall 2019, enrollment has fallen 23% across the Peralta community colleges in the East Bay, which include Berkeley City College, Laney College, Merritt College, and College of Alameda. Some are pulling out from college altogether, tired of online learning or forced to work more hours, while others are opting for private, for-profit colleges, which spend more money on marketing.
“Students are voting with their feet,” said Martín De Mucha Flores, associate dean of educational success at Berkeley City College.
But Berkeley City College has largely withstood the statewide enrollment crisis that has plagued its sister schools.
The number of students enrolled at BCC actually increased from fall 2019 to fall 2020. For this fall that number has dipped only slightly: 102 fewer students enrolled at the college than in 2019, a 1% decline. The proportion of Black and Hispanic students has remained constant as well.
All this in spite of the fact that BCC has kept almost all of its classes remote this fall, while the other Peralta Colleges have transitioned to more classes in person. Because BCC is focused on transferring students to four-year colleges, the school offers fewer career education programs, which tend to have more hands-on or laboratory courses. As a result, “going online has had less of an adverse impact compared to the other colleges in the district,” Mark Johnson, head of communications for the community college district, wrote in an email. Santos said that even though she found remote learning challenging, some students prefer it because it’s easier to fit it in with their busy lives.
Reporting on community college enrollment has been complicated by data errors, casting some degree of doubt on the good news. The statewide data system has been unreliable, bearing a disclaimer since last spring: “Research or reporting using this data for terms starting with Spring 2020 is not currently supported and is not recommended.” Berkeleyside used Peralta’s own data dashboard, which has not shown such problems.
Fraudulent bots or “phantom students” have been enrolling in community colleges across California to collect financial aid, a scheme that Merritt College president David Johnson described as “cunning, precise and unprecedented.” Between all four Peralta colleges, 3,473 fraudulent applicants obtained $179,000 in financial aid, Siri Brown, vice chancellor of academic affairs at Peralta, reported in a Sep. 14 Board of Trustees meeting.
Peralta Community College District staff have been working to catch the bots and update enrollment numbers accordingly. “We believe we’re catching most of the fraudulent activity at this point but it’s a moving target,” Johnson wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “The dashboards are updated daily so they represent the most accurate picture we have on a given day.”
De Mucha Flores said the numbers tell a story about access to education. “For us, this is way bigger than just our own college enrollment,” he said. Community colleges, including BCC, serve a large share of students from marginalized backgrounds, such as first-generation college students or those from low-income families. For those students, community college can be an access point to greater opportunity.
At BCC, there’s an entire office dedicated to supporting disadvantaged students. The college runs cohort programs supporting students who want to transfer through counseling and providing a sense of community, including for Black, Latino, and Asian American Pacific Islander students. Since March 2020, BCC has also loaned 400 free WiFi hotspots to students and partnered with Berkeley Food Network to provide grocery bags to its students.
The feeling is that, “You’re not just a student ID number, you know, you’re not just a number on a list,” said Charles Vanmeurs, who graduated from Berkeley City College and is now working as a graduate counseling faculty intern while he completes his master’s degree.
When Santos graduated from high school in Richmond, she was wary of attending a community college: She had heard too many stories of students dropping out, and she had always pictured herself at a four-year university. But the price tag on her state school acceptance letter turned her away. “When I made the decision to go to community college, that was terrifying,” Santos said.
But at BCC, Santos found mentors who kept her on track, checking in with her regularly about her academic progress. The degree of support sets BCC apart from other local colleges, Santos said, and is something she believes contributes to the school’s high transfer rates and the steady enrollment numbers. After three years at BCC, Santos was able to transfer to her dream school without breaking the bank. Now, she said, she is a “huge community college advocate.”
Behind the numbers
While it does appear that BCC has fared better than other community colleges in enrollment numbers, what’s behind those numbers has shifted.
Compared with fall 2019, there are more first-time students enrolling and fewer continuing students at BCC. The number of students who are under 19 years old jumped 50% from fall 2019 to fall 2021. Many of those are dual-enrollment students, high school students who take college classes toward completing a program or degree.
While student headcount went up at BCC during the first year of the pandemic, the number of “full-time equivalent” students fell significantly. (One full-time equivalent student is a measure colleges use that is equivalent to a student taking a full class load.)
That means more students are enrolled, but students are taking fewer classes than usual, more likely to be juggling full-time work or other responsibilities with their school work. Colleges like BCC urge students to take a full-time load when they can: Students taking more classes can transfer to a four-year college faster and they can receive more financial aid.
De Mucha Flores said that even if BCC has fared relatively well, the reality is that the pandemic has been unduly challenging for community college students across the country.
“The pandemic exacerbated a lot of different inequities that are happening, everything from health to mental health access to fair-wage-living paying jobs,” De Mucha Flores said. “The challenges that scholars are facing are real. There’s no way of getting around that.”