City College of San Francisco Faces Declining Student Enrollment, Mirroring a National Trend for Community Colleges

By Logan Dang


Community colleges were on a steady increase in student enrollment from 2001 to 2012, but have been on a decline since. Data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, based on 5,831 postsecondary institutions, shows the student population increased from 23 million to 29 million from 2001 to 2012, but have seen a steady decline with an overall headcount of 25 million in 2021. Moreover, the decline in student enrollment also is evident at City College of San Francisco.

According to City College’s Argos Institutional Headcount datablock, in 2010-2011, the overall headcount of both credit and noncredit students reached 83,718. However, in recent years, City College has been losing students by the thousands, and most recently in 2019-2020, the total headcount reached 53,601, losing around 36% in student enrollment since 2010.

As every student has their own unique circumstances, the reasons vary for why one is deciding to call it quits. During the pandemic, through Opportunity Insight’s Economic Tracker, showed 30.2% of small businesses closed at the height of the pandemic in March and April 2020, leaving many unemployed. Public educational institutions weren’t prepared and moved into a rough transition into online learning where not all students had reliable computers or internet access. 

In-person learning may have its benefits, but having a dependent and a career can deeply affect whether or not a student decides to continue with their education. In a recent study conducted in 2021 by the University of Florida, 33% of students reported having issues with their schedules regarding work and family obligations. A number of students lived far away from campus, making it difficult for them to attend classes. 

“Coarse Scheduling” Illustration by Cindy Chan

As there are many individuals who’ve become successful without a college degree, teenagers and young adults are willing to take a risk to become an entrepreneur or find online learning resources to learn skills to apply for a major firm. A nursing student named Martell Coleman said, “I have a friend who applied for an internship at Google or one of those tech companies. He kind of found his own job and once he got the internship, he dropped out.” 

Students also struggle with tuition costs. Residents of San Francisco are eligible for “Free City” or free tuition at City College, but not all students may qualify. Many students find the cost of living expenses in San Francisco very high and struggle to pay rent, utility costs, healthcare, child care, and food expenses. The financial aid provided may not provide an adequate amount to support them to continue school. 

Textbooks are one huge cost factor when selecting courses for any college, costing hundreds of dollars in some cases. However, City College’s program, Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, offers vouchers for textbooks, transportation, and counselor meetings. City College and other colleges provide resources for obtaining financial aid that you can find in the financial aid office along with scholarships; however, there are certain issues that students have with City College. 

As Coleman said, “I think it’s more of a management issue with CCSF. They cut a lot of the art classes and lost $7 million that no one knew where it went. To me, I think they need to be more transparent, more accountable, and make sure funds are being used properly.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many institutions resorted to online activities, but that proved to be much more difficult. While there are benefits to working and learning from home, students found online learning difficult. A number of students, according to Coleman, had problems with their computers, which led City College to supply Chromebooks. “They ended up using Google Chromebooks that the school supplied them and they said those are pretty good.” 

However, even with one’s computer and internet issues resolved, it is also the role of an instructor to motivate their students. Students of a biological psychology class expressed their concerns with online learning. Michelle Lam, a student at City College, said, “The professor isn’t on top of things. Takes too long to respond to the class, the due dates are confusing, and at the beginning of class, no one could access the textbook because the site was bugging out. We were stuck doing nothing essentially for two weeks.” 

Other students mentioned unhelpful instructions and said it was difficult to be motivated. Guidance is an important factor to maintain motivation. Lawrence Lanahan from the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news organization, reported that Maricopa community colleges struggled with enrollment during the pandemic because students weren’t properly guided to resources that they needed such as financial aid, ID card obtainment, understanding the path toward a specific degree and other issues. 

At City College, students felt informed to a certain degree. Jose Burgos, a former veteran and now a City College student said, “When I graduated from high school, I joined the military so I never really had the college experience. All I had was what they showed on TV and in movies, so it was very different. 

“The VA center here was a great help to spend time studying with other people who shared the same experiences as me,” Burgos continued. “They also helped me register with classes and others guided me to other resources.” Burgos said it was challenging to find a schedule of events though, such as athletic events and student recreational activities. “There’s no visualization of things to do, places to go, and other activities,” he added.

But other students provided a more positive outlook about City College. “There’s a lot of gems within the school; the nursing, CNA, LVN, and EMT departments are amazing and I was always well-informed about them,” Coleman said. 

Elizabeth Hoang, another City College student, said, “I have established a nice relationship with faculty members and felt that I was supported here during my time here in person.”

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