Dramatic enrollment drop won’t cost California community colleges state aid but could impact adjunct faculty

Source: Michael Burke and Thomas Peele: EdSource

“It’s certainly an issue we’re concerned about in the big picture,” he said of the declines.

The California community college system’s dramatic enrollment drop won’t have immediate financial consequences for the 116-college system — but it could be detrimental for part-time adjunct faculty.

While student enrollment plunged during the pandemic, districts that lost students won’t get hurt financially. The state’s funding formula distributes money based partly on enrollment, but colleges that have lost students in recent years are funded based on higher and older numbers.

Those protections will be in place until at least 2025. For part-time faculty, however, the consequences will be more immediate, as they work semester-by-semester based on the availability of classes.

“We’re watching to see how it impacts part-time faculty assignments because the districts are going to give full-timers their assignments first,” said Stephanie Goldman, acting executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges. The group advocates for issues of interest to the 42,000 adjunct faculty in the system, but it does not bargain for them. Local unions negotiate with each of the 73 locally elected districts that run the colleges.

The community college chancellor’s office last week reported to the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee that the system is facing a nearly 15% enrollment drop due to the pandemic, a loss of 318,800 students from the prior year. That put its student enrollment at 1,833,843, down from 2,152,643 students in 2019-20. That figure was given as a “best estimate” available at the time.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), chairman of the state Assembly’s budget subcommittee on education finance, said that even if lawmakers had exact enrollment numbers, it likely wouldn’t affect policy decisions.

The “bigger-picture issue,” McCarty said, is that the enrollment drop across the system is significant regardless of the exact figure. The current year’s budget deal between lawmakers and Gov. Gavin Newsom included spending to help the colleges address the declines. The budget allocated $120 million to the colleges to increase efforts to retain current students and re-engage ones who have dropped out.

“It’s certainly an issue we’re concerned about in the big picture,” he said of the declines. McCarty also pointed out that California faces a college degree and certification shortage, and said reversing the enrollment trends will be necessary to change that. “It’s an important issue for the economic well-being of California.” 

The enrollment declines have plagued the community colleges throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. The statewide board of governors will be briefed on the issue at its meeting on Monday. 

Part of the conversation during the board meeting will likely deal with challenges the statewide chancellor’s office is having with determining exactly how many students opted not to enroll or return to classes during the 2020-21 academic year. For months, the chancellor’s office has been unable to say how many students enrolled in fall 2020 and spring 2021. A memo prepared for the system’s board of governors puts the loss at 15% but also offers an additional possible loss estimate of 9.6%. 

The memo to the board says the inability to produce an accurate figure for enrollment loss stems from its challenges in counting students in certain noncredit classes.

Lawmakers and Newsom administration officials acknowledge the need for accurate data. Officials said they remain concerned about the consequences of enrollment declines, not only for the colleges but for the long-term economic health of the state because it is an important player in the training and educating of the state’s workforce.

The college system, however, won’t face any fiscal or policy ramifications for not having an exact enrollment count. For one, the state does not rely on student headcount — the total number of students enrolled — for determining how much funding each college gets. Instead, the shares are based on the number of full-time equivalent students, or FTES, which is calculated by taking the sum of course credits carried by all students enrolled at a district and dividing that by the number of credits in a full-time course load.

Under the funding formula, districts that gain in FTES are eligible to get more funding. For districts that have suffered FTES losses during the pandemic, a so-called “hold harmless” provision ensures that they will be funded at least at their 2017-18 levels, plus a cost of living adjustment. The 2021-22 budget deal extended those hold harmless provisions through 2024-25. Additionally, state regulations allow colleges to use old years of enrollment data in emergency situations, which the Covid-19 pandemic is considered to be.

“We’re aware of some of the system’s data challenges, and we’re certainly concerned about issues with data quality – which is necessary for policymakers to make informed decisions,” H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Finance, said in an email. “That said, the underlying construct of the Student Centered Funding Formula significantly reduces the likelihood that the state’s CCC budget, or local district budgets, would vary dramatically from one fiscal year to the next.”

Part-time faculty could suffer

With fewer students enrolling in classes, some faculty members will inevitably be let go, said Goldman, acting executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges.

“The part-timers who maybe have worked at a certain district for decades are going to start to lose out,” she added. “They got fewer people enrolling in classes and the first ones to go are going to be the part-time faculty.”

The association has “had a really hard time tracking the (enrollment) data,” Goldman said. Part of the problem is the state’s 73 local community college districts are on quarter systems and others have varying start times for semesters, she said. “They all report at different times.”

Board to be briefed

A memo prepared for the community college system’s board of governors ahead of Monday’s meeting provides the latest explanation of the problems the chancellor’s office is having collecting solid enrollment data.

“Examining students solely enrolled in noncredit courses,” the system observed a decline of about 153,000 students in 2020-21 compared to 2019-20, John Hetts, an executive overseeing data for the chancellor’s office, wrote in the memo.

The system’s data technology did not allow the colleges to report attendance by all students in noncredit courses, Hetts said. The result was “artificially inflating” the loss of those students. Paul Feist, a spokesman for the chancellor’s office, said in an email that solving the noncredit problem “continues to remain a priority, and efforts are underway to support districts being able to report to the Chancellor’s Office the headcount of noncredit students.”

Pamela Haynes, the president of the state board of governors blamed the system’s “outdated reporting definitions and data systems” for its inability to accurately count groups of students.  She also said the chancellor’s office needs funding to add to its 160-member staff.