In April 2020, Alejandra Guerra, 23, started working at Amazon while finishing her associate degree in criminal justice at Sacramento City College. Working nights and weekends at the warehouse near the Sacramento airport, she earned $18.70 an hour, nearly five dollars more than she had been making prior to the pandemic as a secretary. 

The hours were grueling: She finished her last warehouse shift of the week at 5:30 a.m. on Monday and started class, online, at 8 a.m. “I have very bad ADHD, so it’s very hard for me to concentrate when I’m sitting in front of a laptop, especially when I just worked a 10-and-a-half-hour shift,” she said. “I’m just thinking about sleep.”

She dropped out of school in May 2020 with about seven classes left to graduate. More than three years later, she still hasn’t returned, making her part of an emerging trend among community college students ages 20 to 30. While other age groups are returning to college following a drop during the COVID-19 pandemic, these twenty-somethings are the last holdouts.  

At its lowest point following the start of the pandemic, the California Community Colleges system had lost just over 417,000 students, an 18.5% drop  compared to the 2018-19 academic year. That was a 30-year low. The decline means colleges risk losing state funds in the near future, since their funding is pegged in part to enrollment. In the long-term, it means employers may grapple with a less educated or less skilled workforce. 

“We’re seeing increased wages in occupations that don’t require a bachelor’s or an associate degree.”

Don Miller, vice president of academic affairs at Rio Hondo College

Enrollment numbers grew by about 5% in the 2022-23 school year, according to data provided by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. It’s the most recent data available, though numbers are not yet official. Early estimates from various community college districts show enrollment gains continuing into this fall, too. 

But that rebound is uneven: it stems largely from high school students who are taking college classes, and to a lesser extent, from adults over 30 who are returning to college after leaving at record rates during the pandemic. Meanwhile, students in their 20s, like Guerra, continued to leave college. The state’s 116 community colleges lost more than 13,000 students between the ages of 20 and 30 last year, about a 2% decline in that population compared to the previous year. 

The result is a demographic shift across the community college system. For over a decade, it was students between 20 and 30 years old who made up the plurality of students on campus. Last year, it was students under 20 who represented the largest group. These youth, particularly those in high school, have become central to the strategy of California Community College Chancellor Sonya Christian, who has said she wants to require every ninth-grader in California to enroll in a community college course

Low unemployment means low enrollment for some colleges

Administrators say there is no single explanation as to why this generation of twenty-somethings is lagging behind the rest. For one, the age group isn’t monolithic, and students with different racial or ethnic backgrounds showed differing trends. The population of Asian and Filipino students in their 20s declined by 6 and 12%, respectively, while the number of African-American and Native students in the same age group increased by a few percentage points compared to the previous year. Another possible explanation comes from a recent survey of the state’s community college students, which found that roughly one-third of students between the ages of 21 and 30 had experienced homelessness in the past year — a higher rate than any other age group. 

But most college administrators agree that the economy is often a leading factor. Historically, college enrollment fluctuates with the economy. A good economy and ample job

opportunities mean students often choose work over school.

“We’re seeing increased wages in occupations that don’t require a bachelor’s or an associate degree,” said Don Miller, vice president of academic affairs at Rio Hondo College, located near Whittier in eastern Los Angeles County. He cited rising wages in the service industry, such as at Starbucks, as well as for entry-level openings at logistics companies, such as Amazon or UPS. 

Logistics in particular has seen a boost in hiring and wages since the start of the pandemic as more people shifted to online shopping. New shipping warehouses opened in the Inland Empire, making Amazon the largest private employer in the region, and some Central Valley cities are close behind.

Amazon SMF1 facility in Sacramento on Sept. 25, 2023.
Amazon SMF1 facility in Sacramento on Sept. 25, 2023. Photo by Rahul Lal for CalMatters

At East Los Angeles College, logistics and technology professor Leo Medina said his classes, which prepare students to work at places like Amazon and UPS, used to enroll more than 800 students a year before the pandemic. He lost about a quarter of his students in 2020 but said some are starting to return, often with encouragement or financial incentives from their employers.

“You hit the ceiling if you don’t have a certain amount of education or skill,” he said.

Guerra started out in an entry-level position at Amazon, but after a year working the night shift, she got promoted. First, she became a data analyst and then an operations supervisor, where she made about $22 an hour. 

For years, her managers at Amazon encouraged her to go back to school.  While the company covers tuition, books, and fees for many of its employees, Guerra said she was unsure whether she wanted to go back to school or instead try to advance internally through more promotions. Her mentality changed this spring, when she lost her job and had to search for a new one.

“I have all these skills that I’ve learned, but there’s all these jobs that don’t want to hire me because I don’t have a degree,” she said. She found a position as a receptionist at a property management company in Sacramento and plans to enroll in college at some point next year. 

Losing the ‘drive’ for community college

Community colleges have collectively spent millions of dollars, much of it part of COVID relief funds, to draw back students like Guerra. They run recruitment events at churches, community centers and rodeos. They’ve set up call centers to reach out to students and are plastering billboards with eye-catching puns along highways and on buses. The Sacramento-area community college district flew a drone display in the image of a cap and gown to woo spectators at a professional soccer match. The efficacy of those marketing efforts is up for debate.

But research has found a few clear trends in college recruitment. Only 13% of students who drop out of college re-enroll in school within five years,  according to a 2019 analysis by the National Student Clearinghouse. Once students leave high school and put off going to college, it becomes harder to convince them to enroll, too.

Hunter Garcia, 22, enrolled at Butte College near Chico in the fall of 2019 after seeing a flier that advertised the school. He dropped out in the midst of the pandemic after starting his third semester and soon began working the night shift at a nearby Walmart warehouse. He didn’t feel safe at night near his apartment, and since he didn’t have a car, he walked to work each day around sunset, waiting until 10 p.m. to start his nine-hour shift. After six months, he quit. But by then, he said he felt too isolated and exhausted to restart an online education. “I just lost the drive,” he said.

Only 13% of students who drop out of college re-enroll in school within five years, according to a 2019 analysis by the National Student Clearinghouse.

Many colleges are rethinking the structure of college: trying to fit school around the student, instead of the traditional model, which asks students to schedule their lives around school. In one of the most innovative approaches, eight community colleges in California have opted into a pilot program that aims to redesign part of their curricula so students can gain a degree without ever attending class.  

Most colleges are making simpler changes, such as offering more flexible hours, more online classes and new courses that are more easily applicable in the workforce. One school is offering higher wages for student tutors in an effort to keep them on campus and keep them from seeking higher-paying jobs elsewhere.

Garcia has no intentions of going back to school in the near future, though he hasn’t ruled it out entirely. He works as a carpenter now, making around $25 an hour, but it’s not much easier than his previous job at WalMart, he said. “My body won’t be able to keep up with this forever,” he said.

Erica Yee contributed to this reporting. 

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.