Community College enrollment struggles continue, RCC finds solutions

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Riverside City College is using a marketing campaign that includes texting and calling students to encourage re-enrollment. The Riverside Community College District has experienced enrollment declines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as have Community Colleges across the state. (Saida Maalin | Viewpoints file photo)
By Erik Galicia

After several months of navigating distance education, Michael Ortega decided to drop his courses at Riverside City College.

Ortega, 44, a formerly incarcerated student, struggled with the sudden lack of face-to-face interaction. He said he needed one-on-one time with his instructors and the ability to walk into the Writing and Reading Center for in-person help. 

Campus life inspired him.

“Being on campus provides a sense of purpose,” Ortega said. “It provides a sense of pride in being a college student.”

But during the fall 2020 semester, the lack of interaction, working multiple jobs, navigating COVID-19 and his struggles with the sudden increase in technology required to complete courses, led Ortega to say it was time for a break. He was not alone.

According to Eloy Ortiz Oakley, California Community Colleges chancellor, students across the state continue to opt out of re-enrolling, following a trend seen throughout the pandemic. The Riverside Community College District experienced a 13% enrollment decrease during the fall 2020 semester after experiencing strong enrollment during the preceding summer term.

The winter 2021 term resulted in strong enrollment numbers for the district, which even exceeded its enrollment target at Norco College. Moreno Valley College and RCC achieved 80.4% and 98.6% of their targets, respectively.

“That was substantially better than what we experienced for either the fall and what we’re currently looking at for the spring,” said Jeannie Kim, interim vice chancellor of Educational Services and Strategic Planning.

As of Feb. 1, enrollment in the district was 16.4% below where it was two weeks before the spring 2020 semester. It was also 24.9% below its target enrollment for spring 2021.

RCC invested in a marketing campaign following last semester’s enrollment decline that includes texting students, sending postcards to targeted neighborhoods and social media promotion.

“We have been working hard to encourage students to come back if they have stopped attending, as well as reaching out to our students who attended fall or winter who have not yet registered for spring,” Kyla O’Connor, RCC dean of Enrollment Services, said via email. “We have a variety of staff throughout the college calling students who are not enrolled. Billboards have recently gone up around our surrounding area as part of our new marketing campaign.”

According to Kim, the campaign has worked. RCC has seen more enrollment success than the district’s two other colleges, achieving 86.1% of its spring enrollment target as of Feb. 9.

“Norco College and MVC don’t have the same level of monetary resources because they are smaller colleges,” Kim said. “We are trying to utilize district resources and provide support through our office of Strategic Communication, and utilizing additional marketing strategies to do the same kind of campaign that RCC was able to launch.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget includes an investment in re-enrollment strategies that may be available to Community Colleges sometime this spring. Kim said plans for the use of those funds are being drafted by the district and its three colleges.

The plans will play out in terms of ensuring students take the maximum number of credits they can afford and can handle in order to complete their degrees in a timely manner. Funds will also go toward continued tutoring and mental health support, as well as additional technological support and book purchase aid, she said.

Although she recognized the difficulties of the times, Kim urged students considering dropping out to stay the course.

“It is empirically and data-proven that having a degree absolutely improves economic stability,” she said. “While this time can be incredibly challenging on all fronts, we strongly encourage the students to continue with their education because it will have an absolute monetary and psychological impact for themselves and future generations.”

As federal resources continue to be made available, emergency funds will be provided to students through an application similar to the one used for CARES Act money last year, she added.

Nervous but optimistic, Ortega has decided to return to college for the spring 2021 semester, aiming to continue toward a sociology degree.

“I really hope that I can succeed with online courses,” he said. “I can’t wait for the day to be back on campus.”

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