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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.

Progress on building SRJC’s Construction Education Center, however, has been stalled by at least eight months because of supply-chain issues and the need for additional funding, as the Business Journal reported Feb. 11.

“If fully funded this spring, we will break ground (in) fall 2022, with completion in spring 2024,” Williams said.

Meanwhile, SRJC throughout the pandemic has been focused on alleviating other stressors that could impact enrollment.

“Our foundation and financial aid office has awarded over $30 million annually through federal and state grants and local scholarships, (and) our office of student life has established a partnership with Redwood Empire Food Bank to provide food drives,” Avila said. “The college has increased mental health services support by hiring additional therapists to help students cope with anxiety and other COVID-related stressors.”

College of Marin

As of Feb. 8, enrollment drop-off at the College of Marin from spring 2021 to spring 2022 has been minimal, at 1.2%, according to Jonathan Eldridge, assistant superintendent and vice president of student learning and success.

The college is offering about 5% more courses than a year earlier, and has ramped up its in-person offerings, he said.

“During the pandemic, over 85% of our courses were offered fully online. This spring, the number of distance education courses is about 17%,” Eldridge said. “Pre-pandemic, we offered about 10% of our courses as distance education.”

The College of Marin has made a number of moves over the last two years to stabilize its enrollment numbers, according to David Wain Coon, superintendent and president.

“We understand that many students have been unable to continue their college classes since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “While we provided unprecedented financial support to students with the greatest needs during the pandemic, for many, that was not enough to keep them on their educational journeys.”

The college waived the outstanding debt for the students who had to drop out, making it easier for them to return in the spring, he said.

“And in November, we launched the Clear Path program, covering mandatory fees, including parking, for all credit (and) noncredit students who enroll for spring classes,” Wain Coon said. “It is an extra boost to returning and new students whether they want to upskill or earn a degree, certificate, or transfer credits.”

Enrolled students who qualify for the Clear Path program also remain eligible to receive their full financial aid, he added.

The College of Marin’s ongoing efforts to increase enrollment include its continued work with its K-12 partners in the county, Wain Coon said.

“College of Marin Providing Access and Supporting Success (COMPASS), Jumpstart, Summer Bridge, and the Summer Career Academies are examples of our programs that promote a college-going culture and increase college readiness,” he said.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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