California’s undergraduate enrollment dropped by about 250,000 during pandemic years

A female college student sits at an outside table looking at her computer.
Undergraduate enrollment has declined during the pandemic, a report released Thursday said.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

California’s fall 2021 undergraduate enrollment dropped by nearly a quarter-million students since pre-pandemic fall 2019, according to a survey released Thursday.

The report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that California saw an overall decline of more than 99,000 — or 4.3% — in undergraduate enrollment from fall 2020 to fall 2021, driven largely by a 9.9% drop in community colleges.

The overall one-year enrollment drop is less than the decline of 148,113 in fall 2020 when students were online.


Nationally, enrollment dropped from fall 2020 to fall 2021 by 3.1% — a loss of 465,300 students, bringing the combined enrollment losses since fall 2019 to more than 1 million.

“Our final look at fall 2021 enrollment shows undergraduates continuing to sit out in droves as colleges navigate yet another year of COVID-19,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Without a dramatic reengagement in their education, the potential loss to these students’ earnings and futures is significant, which will greatly impact the nation as a whole in years to come.”

The report offers a more comprehensive estimate than the nonprofit’s previous November report that estimated an overall 6.5% drop in California, largely because about 33% more institutions reported data.

Declines in four-year public universities were also seen across the country. In California, enrollment at public four-year universities dropped by 2.9% from fall 2020, better than in 25 other states.

California saw the eighth-largest percentage drop in community college enrollment, after Washington, New York, Maine, Mississippi, Oregon, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. Shapiro has said that the community college decline is probably due to students opting for the job market over education.

California colleges, both public and private, announce extension of remote instruction, saying high positivity rates call for extra precautions.

Jan. 7, 2022

Enrollment numbers aren’t yet available for the start of the 2022 spring term, when the University of California, California State University and private university campuses delayed the start of in-person instruction amid rising cases of the Omicron variant. Community colleges throughout the state have largely stuck to hybrid schedules.


At the Los Angeles Community College District, on-site classes account for 4,475 enrollments — or about 15% of the districtwide enrollment, Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez said Wednesday during a Board of Trustees meeting. The most recent data for winter classes showed a headcount of about 27,389.

The goal for the spring quarter, which begins in February, is to have a “50-50 split” between remote and in-person enrollment.

“The goal, however, may or may not be achieved due to students’ personal safety choices regarding the current surge and the preferences to enroll in in-person sessions. We’re monitoring that, we’re testing that, we’re following up with students on that, we’re looking at enrollments very, very carefully and of course are trying to meet the needs of students,” Rodriguez said.

Community colleges have struggled to recruit first-time students and reconnect with those who have stepped away during the pandemic. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget addressed the difficulty by proposing $150 million to build on a previous $120-million investment in community colleges’ enrollment and recruitment efforts.