When students started leaving college during the COVID-19 pandemic, California’s community colleges feared losing state funding, which is based partly on enrollment. But now, one group is offering hope: students over the age of 50. 

Last year, the state’s 116 community colleges saw an 11% increase in students over the age of 50 compared to the previous year — the highest percentage increase of any age group and just above the rate for students under 20. In contrast, students 20 to 29 continued to leave

The enrollment numbers represent a shift for older adults, who left college at record rates during the start of the pandemic. By fall 2021, California’s community colleges had lost roughly 20% of their students compared to fall 2019, bringing the system to its lowest enrollment figures in decades.

College administrators say the rising number of students over 50 is a result of many factors, but they often point to the return of in-person classes after the end of pandemic-era restrictions.

“I come to these English classes because here, I don’t feel alone. I chat with my classmates, and they greet me back.”

HERMELINDA FIGUEROA, 80-YEAR-OLD STUDENT

In general, student opinions are divided about online education. About 15% of California community college students surveyed in 2022 said they wanted more online classes, while 12.5% said they wanted more in-person classes, according to data from the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges. But for beginner-level students taking English as a second language at San Diego’s College of Continuing Education, many of them older, the preferences are clear. 

“I come to these English classes because here, I don’t feel alone. I chat with my classmates, and they greet me back,” said Hermelinda Figueroa, 80, who comes to her two-hour class three times a week.  

Bringing students back through fitness and health

The San Diego College of Continuing Education lost about half of its English as a second language students during the pandemic, but most of the students who left were beginners, said Jan Jarrell, a dean at the college. She said many beginner students were uncomfortable with technology or lacked reliable access to it. Teachers struggled to adapt, too.

“It’s all about person-to-person for me. When I use computers, I feel like I’ve lost an eye. I just don’t get it,” said Figueroa, squinting as if to emphasize the way she might look at a screen. She enrolled last year when more in-person classes became available. 

Sitting behind Figueroa in class, Estene Petit-Homme, 50, is part of another demographic that’s boosting enrollment: recent immigrants. He traveled from his home in Haiti to the San Diego-Tijuana border, where he asked for asylum in February. 

His application is one of a record nearly 1.6 million asylum cases currently on backlog in the immigration court system, according to a nonprofit research group associated with Syracuse University. While he waits for his day in court, he said he wants to learn to speak English better. 

Hermelinda Figueroa, 80, works on an assignment during an English as a second language class at the Mid-City campus of the San Diego College of Continuing Education on Oct. 6, 2023. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

This fall, the San Diego College of Continuing Education has just shy of 6,700 English as a second language students — more than before the pandemic. Many of these students are over 50.

In Lake Tahoe, the local community college saw a nearly 60% increase in students over the age of 50 in the 2022-23 academic year, compared to the previous year. The main driver isn’t English; it’s two classes that focus on health and fitness for older adults, especially retirees. 

“We were surprised by how well the Zoom classes did but it’s not nearly as good as what we’re seeing now that the doors are fully open,” said Lake Tahoe Community College President Jeff DeFranco, speaking of the wellness programs. 

Other students in the same age group are still working but use the community college as an opportunity to improve their on-the-job skills. DeFranco said about 35% of the college’s students over 50 are firefighters, emergency medical technicians, or police officers who study at Lake Tahoe Community College because it has an established program focused on public safety. These students take classes as a way to get a job, to gain the skills needed for a promotion, or in some cases, because the classes are required by their current employer. 

Uneven growth across California’s community colleges

As the number of students older than 50 fluctuated in the past few years, other trends emerged. More community college classes are now held in person than at the peak of the pandemic, but about half of classes are still online, according to Chancellor’s Office data from the 2022-23 academic year. Before the pandemic, about 21% of classes were online. 

For years, the percentage of part-time, degree-seeking students rose. Today, it’s about two-thirds of the student population, according to data from the chancellor’s office. These part-time students are more likely to juggle work and family obligations, in addition to school.

To lure students back and encourage them to take more courses, colleges and lawmakers have spent millions in COVID-relief dollars on marketing campaigns and incentives.

Last year, the number of students under the age of 20 increased at a rate just below that of students over 50, driven mostly by high school students who take community college courses. These youngest students now represent the plurality on campus. 

Students in an English as a second language class at the Mid-City campus of the San Diego College of Continuing Education on Oct. 6, 2023. Photo by Adriana Heldiz, CalMatters

While the growth is uneven, the total number of students increased by about 5% in the 2022-23 academic year compared to the year prior, according to data from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. It marks the first year of enrollment gains since the start of the pandemic. Official statewide data from the current fall semester is not available yet, but individual districts are already predicting more gains. 

The San Jose Evergreen Community College District reported enrollment for the fall was up nearly 20%. The district could only provide preliminary data across age groups but a spokesperson said the “biggest growth” came from students over the age of 40. 

“These enrollment numbers reflect a lot of hard work by a lot of people,” wrote Interim District Chancellor Beatriz Chaidez. “They also indicate that our community continues to see the value of its local colleges.”

Data reporter 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.