How North Bay community colleges are working to overcome pandemic hurdles
Beset by two years of a pandemic that has crippled enrollment, several North Bay community colleges are entering the spring semester hoping that enticements like housing, debt forgiveness and more in-person classes will reverse the trend.
But the colleges won’t be able to count on President Biden’s Build Back Better spending bill to help.
That piece of the legislation, which included $45.5 billion to help students with tuition, was eliminated on Feb. 7.
Napa Valley College
There are a number of factors beyond funding that are challenging to the state’s 116-community college system, including Napa Valley College, said interim Superintendent and President Robert Frost.
“The college’s decline in enrollment has been fueled by a declining population and, most recently, pandemic pressures pushing young adults to the workforce rather than the classroom,” Frost said.
Community colleges also are competing for students who these days have an abundance of choices for getting higher education.
“From statewide online degrees, to out-of-state schools, to low-cost baccalaureate degrees in Europe, students can study from their phone while pursuing other adventures,” Frost said.
Community colleges struggled during the pandemic to convert courses from in-person to online learning, especially for certain subjects. Now they’re counting on bringing students back to campus.
“Community colleges stand out in unique, hands-on, workforce training in nursing, computer science, welding, viticulture, teaching and other disciplines that are still best taught in-person, even while offering hybrid formats that support around the clock access,” Frost said.
So what does enrollment at Napa Valley College look like these days?
The college as of Feb. 9 reported a 12% enrollment drop for the spring semester compared to a year earlier, according to Holly Dawson, director, public affairs and communications. The college this semester has enrolled 4,382 students, compared to 4,995 last spring, she said.
Napa Valley College has raised the percentage of courses it’s offering in-person since spring 2021, up nearly 50% compared to less than 20% a year earlier. The in-person offerings include a hybrid component, Dawson said.
One of the college’s key strategies for increasing enrollment is to find ways to make it easier for students of all income levels to attend. To address housing insecurity, Dawson said the college plans to open on-campus student housing in fall 2024, a project the Business Journal covered when first announced in September 2019.
Another way Napa Valley College is addressing enrollment issues is by using its COVID-19 relief federal funds to help students pay off debt, Dawson noted.
“We are also providing cash grants of $500 to any student taking six or more units. The student can use those funds toward books, food, rent — whatever their individual need is,” Dawson said. “We also provide a number of student services, including mental wellness resources and free groceries.”
Napa Valley College recently formed an enrollment taskforce that will tackle how to effectively increase enrollment now and into the future, Frost noted.
“My goal is to recover and stabilize enrollment and I look forward to the recommendations of the taskforce,” he said.
Santa Rosa Junior College
Like Napa Valley College, a portion of Santa Rosa Junior College’s work toward increasing enrollment is dedicated to addressing housing insecurity.
Last year, after pandemic-related financing delays, SRJC broke ground on its 352-bed student housing project to serve low-income students, a project first announced in 2017. The student homes are scheduled to open in fall 2023, according to Pedro Avila, vice president, student services.
Looking at SRJC’s enrollment so far this spring, there has been an approximate decrease of 9.5% compared to spring 2021. However, there has been an increase of about 2.5% in the number of courses being offered from a year ago.
SRJC also has brought back more on-campus courses since last spring.
“We’ve gone from 7% of classes with an in-person component in spring 2021 to 40% in spring 2022,” according to Josh Adams, dean of curriculum, scheduling, older adults, and public safety training center.
Enrollment remains strong in SRJC’s building and construction trades program, which pivoted to being taught fully online during the pandemic, said Catherine Williams, psychology instructor and faculty lead for the Santa Rosa Junior College Construction Center project on the Petaluma campus.
“These classes are taught in English and Spanish and are attended by 85% Latino/Latina adults who are first-generation college students,” she said.