Interior of illuminated lecture hall. Empty chairs are arranged in classroom. Auditorium is in university.

Fewer People Are Attending College In This Crisis Because College Systems Aren’t Designed To Support Them

Yet another troubling trend for higher education: applications for federal student aid are way up among existing students, like juniors and seniors and grad students, but way down among potential new students, like high school grads.

Put together, it looks like a lot of potential students are putting off their plans for college entirely, while a lot of current students are desperately trying to figure out how to stay enrolled.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this appears to be particularly true among those most struggling with the economic impact of covid-19: enrollment in California’s community colleges has dropped 9.2% this fall, while national community college enrollment has dropped 9.5%.

It’s easy – and likely correct – to blame the perilous financial position so many families that were already struggling are now in. But part of the drop may be related to the nature of these programs as well: many community colleges focus on “hands-on” career training – and programs like that, which often involve direct supervision of physical tasks, have been the least able to adjust to an online environment.

A recent article in CalMatters shows how career training programs across the state – from cooking to auto repair – have been struggling to find a way to continue to offer a meaningful education.  How can a culinary arts instructor know how a student is doing if they can’t taste what they’re working on?

Put another way – if college is an expense you aren’t sure you can meet, AND it can’t even train you in the kind of career you want, why would you enroll?  

There’s some evidence that this is an emerging way to think about education, though it isn’t local:  a recent survey from the United Kingdom found that a significant number of potential college students had decided to look for jobs with on-the-job training programs instead.  It’s less a statement about education and more an acknowledgement that in these difficult times they need the money a job would provide, but it’s still a comment on what they think education can offer now.

As colleges, and particularly technical education programs, try to find new approaches in these unusual times, it’s important to remember that in fact none of these problems are really new:  they were all identified prior to the pandemic, along with the need for solutions.  

Even before the pandemic, there were already too many barriers to college – especially among the working poor and non-traditional students.  Cost was the most obvious, but time and schedule constraints could be equally prohibitive.  People who wanted to go into new careers often couldn’t get the education they needed precisely because they would need to show up for all those hands on labs and workshops and it wasn’t compatible with their jobs and family responsibilities.  

The bureaucracy of the college application process is also a significant hurdle:  if applying to college and financial aid programs is itself a cross between a massive test and a full time job, a lot of people simply aren’t going to make it in.  

All of these issues are worse as a result of the pandemic, but they were here before and they’ll need real solutions.  

Calbright has already found solutions to some of these problems.  We’ve eliminated tuition entirely – any Californians can come to our programs without cost – and we’ve reduced the bureaucracy considerably by eliminating the need for financial aid and making the application process as minimal as possible.  This helps (though we bet it can be even better if we keep innovating).

But there’s still so much more to do – particularly in the area of training programs that traditionally have required a hands-on component.  Finding new solutions to that issue could be a game-changer, and it’s more obvious than ever that higher education – which is often resistant to change and innovation – needs a research environment in which new approaches are considered, prototyped, and tested.

Calbright’s founding legislation empowers us to create such a R&D branch for all of California’s colleges and universities, developing new approaches and best practices for the entire system.  Finding new approaches to these issues is why we exist – and why we know that these problems weren’t created by the pandemic, and that they’ll still be with us after the pandemic if we don’t do the work of finding meaningful, systemic solutions.

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