Faculty and students hike the steps on Cabrillo College campus on Monday in Aptos.
Faculty and students hike the steps on Cabrillo College campus on Monday in Aptos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Cabrillo College

Cabrillo College enrollment declines, but at lower rate than community colleges statewide

Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the California Community Colleges system saw an enrollment decline of 14.8% — a result of the wide-ranging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though Cabrillo College saw a decline of 10.9%, that was better than the statewide average.

Cabrillo College President Matthew Wetstein doesn’t like to think about the students the college lost during the pandemic. Instead, he’s focused on the institution’s efforts to keep as many as possible.

“This is more of a feel-good story than you might have realized,” he said. “So the statewide data suggests that there’s been this decline year over year in headcount, roughly 14.8%. And if you look at our data from that same time period from 2021, compared to the prior year, our decline was only 10.9% on headcount.”

I’m going to pat ourselves on the back a little bit, that we only lost 11% despite the pandemic and the CZU fire affecting us.

Counting all students who at any point took classes at Cabrillo during the most recent academic year, the college lost a total of 1,837 students. Its enrollment declined from 16,859 for the 2019-20 year to 15,022 for the 2020-21 academic year. This figure includes students who might have been part time.

When focused on students who were enrolled full time, the rate of decline is slightly higher, at 11.3%. Wetstein thinks it’s likely that during periods of recession, students are more likely to go part time, and that could contribute to the higher rate of decline for the total headcount.

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He said while it’s terrible that Cabrillo lost those students, staff was able to do a variety of forms of outreach to help students stay in class or re-enroll. Reaching out to students through text messages and emails, providing emergency grants and loaning out laptops for remote learning were crucial to helping students stay, according to Wetstein.

“I’m going to pat ourselves on the back a little bit, that we only lost 11% despite the pandemic and the CZU fire affecting us,” he said. “So when, when all of the data shook out from last year, you know, fall to spring, we actually had enrollment declines that were lower than the state average, and probably lower than the national average.”

In the most recent academic year, the age groups with the largest population numbers — 19 and younger as well as 20- to 24-year-olds — also accounted for the largest drops in enrollment, according to the system’s online data platform.

And, while the 50-and-older group made up 10% of the student population for the 2020-21 academic year, enrollment from that demographic dropped by 356 students.

Beginning in May 2020, Cabrillo used federal dollars to issue emergency grants of $500 to students to help pay for basic needs like rent and food. Students with zero family contribution could receive up to $1,500 starting in spring 2021, Wetstein said.

Cabrillo College student Chris Hedges on campus on Monday.
Cabrillo College student Chris Hedges works on a project in a digital fabrication class on campus Monday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

That same month, the college did a brief survey about how students were accessing their classes — whether through desktop computers or other devices — and Wetstein said a large number of students were accessing them on their cellphones.

They started this pandemic already with low resources, low access to financial aid, so they didn’t have those safety nets. Any job loss, changes in wages, affect them immediately.

Later, in fall 2020, Cabrillo did another survey asking why students dropped out. He said there were two primary reasons: technology challenges or external life barriers like family challenges and economic struggles.

“They started this pandemic already with low resources, low access to financial aid, so they didn’t have those safety nets,” said Lizette Navarette, vice chancellor for college finance at California Community Colleges, according to CalMatters. “Any job loss, changes in wages, affect them immediately.”

Another likely reason students aren’t enrolling is that they’re going to work instead to make up for losses, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Executive Director Doug Shapiro told the Los Angeles Times.

“I think a lot of students, particularly from community colleges and online and for-profit institutions, are responding to the labor market,” he told the Times. “Wages have been increasing for low-wage and middle-wage jobs, and students are seeing an opportunity to try to earn back money that they might have lost during the pandemic.”

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To help students access classes with something other than their phones, Cabrillo’s technology assistance program provided laptops, WiFi hubs and other devices to students who applied to use them each semester. Wetstein estimated that about 1,000 devices were loaned out for free as the college took advantage of federal COVID-19 relief funding.

In addition, throughout the summer, Cabrillo reached out to students who weren’t re-enrolling. Officials texted the students to let them know the college wanted them to continue and asked how they could help.

It could be some time, however, before numbers increase.

While the data won’t be finalized until January, Wetstein said preliminary numbers are showing another 11% decline among full-time students for fall 2021 over fall 2020.