Photo: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Community colleges across California came out on the short end as the pandemic reshuffled student enrollment this fall.

And at Cabrillo College, the changes hit harder than most: Facing the twin crises of pandemic and the CZU fire, Santa Cruz County’s community college delayed the start of its fall semester by a week.

When enrollment stabilized, Cabrillo had lost 18% of its student body year over year. The average dip statewide was 11%, while enrollment increased or held relatively steady at the state’s public four-year institutions

Now an even more precipitous drop could be brewing for the spring, as Cabrillo’s registration rates lag even further behind last year’s pace.

Based on the registration trend through mid-December, spring enrollment may be down 25–28% compared to the prior year, according to Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein.

“I just think, systemwide, this is such a unique and different year from any other recession I’ve ever seen,” Wetstein said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years now, almost. There’s nothing like it.”

Spring registration could rebound. But Wetstein said many community colleges across California are discussing similarly low enrollment with the trends so far appearing even flatter than in fall.

“I think that there are systemic pressures that are finally breaking on our system that relate to financial affordability issues,” he said. “Unless they’re addressed at a policy level in Sacramento, I’m worried — because I think the system is in a period of decline.”

Cabrillo College nutrition instructor Denise Calafato Russo said the enrollment changes are troubling, but not surprising, in light of the range of struggles she’s seen students face with remote learning. One of her students last spring had to take an exam on the side of the road because of internet access issues at their rural North County home, she said.

With two children in college and a third that graduated during the pandemic, Russo said she has also seen those challenges play out at home.

“I think for students it’s just A, overwhelming, B, certain classes are just harder to do online,” Russo said. “People are just opting out.”

Cabrillo enrollment has been on a downward slide for more than a decade. Peaking at about 16,600 in fall 2008, it had dropped to about 11,700 by fall 2019.

Then the pandemic turned the slide into a plummet with the 18% drop in a single year to about 9,600 — the first time in many decades fall enrollment fell below 10,000.

College administrators and faculty attribute the trend to a number of factors — among them, an aging population and smaller graduating classes at most local high schools, skyrocketing housing costs and a state policy change that capped the number of times community members can repeat a course.

A potential silver lining for 2021 is that the Aptos-based college may not have to make more painful budget cuts even if enrollment does continue to fall. That’s because of funding guarantees tied to earlier enrollment, some emergency funding in the works related to the fire, and a rosy forecast for state funding through Prop. 98, taxes raised from the top half of the economy that is still performing well even as the bottom flounders.

The financial picture will clarify in January with the state budget, but Wetstein feels good about it and expects “a slight increase, potentially, in a period of declining enrollment.”

A harder cost to quantify is the impact on the students who in a normal year would be filling those empty seats.

Mapping shows the largest enrollment drops from students living in Watsonville and more rural and fire-affected areas of Northern Santa Cruz County, according to Terrence Willett, Cabrillo’s dean of research, planning, and institutional effectiveness.

“The pain of these two disasters was unevenly felt through the county, the North County getting hit by the fire, and the South County disproportionately hit by COVID,” Willett said.

Three common themes emerge from surveys taken by students who dropped courses, he said: Economic pressures, especially caused by unemployment; prioritizing caretaking of children who were also remotely learning, or other relatives; and the lack of adequate study space or internet access at home.

The same general areas of the county that saw the sharpest enrollment dips at Cabrillo have also been flagged as challenging for remote learning at K-12 level due to disparities in high-speed internet access — also known as the digital divide.

“It’s a signal to me that the community is hurting,” Willett said. “Folks are going to be missing an opportunity to become educated in a timely fashion. Hopefully, most of those people will come back when they’re able to.”

His experience, however, suggests otherwise. For community college students in particular, he said, life can intervene, whether because of work, care-taking, or other variables.

“It could have been that this was their moment to get that education,” Willett said. “Sometimes people have a narrow time window when they can do it, and this is disrupting the time window for a lot of people.”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.