The Cabrillo College campus. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Situated in one of California’s priciest rental markets, Cabrillo College is taking its first real look at developing student housing.

The Aptos-based community college is working on a housing feasibility study that officials expect to complete before the end of the year — exploring a vision for potential development and seeking to answer the challenging question of how to secure financing.

“We’re just at the start of that process,” said Cabrillo College president Matt Wetstein. College officials have yet to settle on a location or a goal for the number of rooms it would seek to build — or even to decide whether to broaden the plan to include housing for its workforce along with students.

Once a vision for a project emerges, development could take more than a decade to complete, according to Bradley Olin, Cabrillo’s vice president of administrative services. “Delivering housing is a very complicated arrangement, and if you talk to some of our community college partners out there, it’s not without hiccups,” Olin told Cabrillo trustees at a meeting this week.

Only 12 out of California’s 116 community colleges offer student housing, most located in rural regions of the state. But the rising rate of housing insecurity faced by community college students, not to mention enrollment decreases at the institutions themselves, are adding pressure to colleges in more urban areas to follow suit.

“Instead of focusing on their studies or engaging with college success efforts, students worry about keeping their belongings safe, where their next meal is coming from, and where they can find shelter at night,” wrote the Community College League of California’s task force on food and housing affordability in a report released last month.

Costa Mesa’s Orange Coast College opened an 814-bed student housing development in September — a $100 million project funded through a borrowing program and a public-private partnership.

The Santa Cruz-Watsonville metro area is the third most expensive rental market in the state, the report found. “The community itself has a housing problem,” said Wetstein, a member of the Community College League of California task force and contributor to the report. “I would characterize it as a failure-to-build-housing problem over two, three decades.”

In 2018, 22% of Cabrillo College students reported experiencing homelessness at some point during the year, according to a survey conducted by the Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Statewide, the survey found 19% of community college students had experienced homelessness across that year.

Student housing could play a role in attracting more enrollment to Cabrillo, where enrollment was on a downward trend well before the precipitous drop it has experienced during the pandemic.

And housing could make Cabrillo a more attractive proposition for athletes, as well as other out-of-state and international students.

“That’s the sort of difficult walk with the community to say, ‘Yes, some out-of-state and international students are going to benefit from this,’” Wetstein said. “But we’re helping to lower rents for the entire community in doing that.”

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, a state policy change that capped the number of times community members can repeat a course, and the skyrocketing housing costs around campus.

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.