Despite college enrollment more than doubling nationally since 1971, PCC’s enrollment has decreased due to multiple factors, including low unemployment rates, rising housing costs and a tense political climate for undocumented students.
The main causes of the school’s eroding enrollment seem to be a result of larger economic and political factors affecting enrollment statewide.
First, the economic factors.
Pasadena has an unusually low unemployment rate recently, which has resulted in less demand for people furthering their skills at PCC.
“Whenever the economy is good, and the best judge of that is unemployment rate, so whenever the unemployment rate drops, fewer students enroll in community colleges,” Dr. Terry Giugni, Assistant Superintendent/Vice President of Instruction said. “When people lose their job, they are looking for ways to retrain, they have more time … [so] they tend to go to school. The economy is good right now so enrollment is dropping.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the national unemployment rate at 4.1 percent for March 2018 and YCharts, a modern financial data research platform, reported Pasadena’s unemployment at 3.9 percent in February 2018, dropping from recent peaks of 4.8 percent in August 2017 and 8 percent in July 2014. This is unusually low because the Federal Reserve actually estimates the natural rate, sometimes considered the ideal rate, of unemployment at 4.5 percent to 6 percent to account for workers switching jobs and other factors. When the economy is bad and unemployment is high, community colleges are in high demand because people take classes and earn degrees to become more competitive in the job market.
While PCC addresses the need to train locals for jobs, there is less demand for those programs with the high employment rates.
“There is a lot of focus on the Strong WorkForce Program,” Dr. Valerie Foster, President of the Academic Senate, said. “We are being asked to talk to local business and industry in order to create programs that will help students get jobs that pay a livable wage.”
The second economic factor affecting enrollment rates is that PCC has such excellent transfer rates, resources and job placement that the school has attracted students from across Los Angeles County for years. Other schools are now mimicking the PCC promise to fully fund students’ first year as long as the student recently graduated from an in-district high school (along with other criteria). That means out-of-district students have to make the tough decision between attending their local junior college for cheaper or attending PCC at a higher cost. About 70 to 73 percent* of PCC’s incoming student body is “out-of-district,” according to Executive Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Planning Crystal Kollross, which means a significant number of potential Lancers need to make that financial choice.
“L.A. City College is … about 10 miles away from us, but if you live in their district then their promise applies to you,” Giugni said. “If you go to PCC, you don’t qualify for our promise so some students are planning to go to their community college in the district they live in then get the first year free.”
Nearly 150 students were enrolled last fall under the PCC promise, according to Alex Boekelheide, executive director of strategic communications and marketing. That number is expected to increase.
Political factors are also taking a significant chunk out of PCC’s enrollment. The Trump Administration’s policy on DACA students and undocumented immigrants is making attending PCC dicey for those groups.
One crucial, yet less visible, service PCC offers the community is non-credit courses. These courses include English as a Second Language and Immigrant Education courses which have seen a tremendous drop in enrollment. PCC doesn’t require proof of citizenship to attend and many undocumented students fall under AB540 to gain in-state tuition prices if they graduated from a California high school after spending three years there, but the political climate presents significant risk for those students to be visible.
“Those students are uncertain of their future and so they’re less likely to come to school than they were before and our enrollment in non-credit [courses] is dropping considerably because of that,” Giugni said. “Those students are less likely to be in places they would be seen, so if they come here, they’re concerned about how much [PCC] can protect them and there’s some uncertainty in regard to that because we don’t control the federal government.”
This goes back to the state-wide controversy of sanctuary cities, where a city’s police refuse to help the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) find and deport undocumented immigrants. PCC campus police operate under that same mentality, with the written policy that “District Police & College Safety will neither contact, detain, question, or arrest any individual on the sole basis of suspected undocumented status nor work in concert with federal immigration officials for immigration enforcement purposes.”
Those policies cannot fully stop ICE agents which creates a legitimate risk for undocumented immigrants who wish to attend PCC. As a result, many don’t attend.
Finally, rising housing costs across the region have the immediate impact of housing insecurity for existing students.
A study of nearby Los Angeles Community College District’s 230,000 students found that nearly half struggle with high housing costs and 19 percent were recently homeless. Furthermore, about 65 percent of students struggle with food insecurity. PCC is working to integrate more resources for homeless students, such as the Lancer Pantry, free open educational resources and low-cost student health services.
Housing prices have been rising in Los Angeles for years, creating a long-term pattern of young families being unable to afford living in the district. People escape the housing shortage here in LA. for the Inland Empire or move out of the state altogether. When fewer families live in the area, there are less students to attend PCC.
When students are dissuaded to attend PCC due to cost or fear, that severely conflicts with the school’s goals.
“We work to promote access to education in all segments of our area, and we also advance the college through interactions with business leaders … and the philanthropic community,” Boekelheide said. “Broadly speaking, we try to ensure PCC is making all of its programs available to people who need them, no matter where they’re from.”
PCC’s funding is currently based on how many students attend the college, and increasing enrollment will be a challenge for the school when the problems are substantial socio-political issues.
Similar to the broad enrollment difficulty, there is no one clear answer why students drop out of PCC. The top reasons** were that 20 percent left because of conflict with work schedule (which echoes the first economic factor in declining enrollment with low unemployment rates), 12 percent were not satisfied with course(s), 10 percent had financial aid issues and 10 percent couldn’t get classes. This data was collected from a 50 person telephone survey conducted by PCC’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness which researched why students drop out of PCC.
“The opening of the Foothill and Rosemead campuses has helped increase our enrollment due to the fact that we have more facilities available to teach classes, and therefore more classes to fill,” Boekelheide said. “The satellite campuses allow us to provide these benefits to even more areas of our district.”
PCC works to advertise the college. Additionally, the administration “nudges” students who have a couple classes left for their degree to come back to complete the classes and connect the students with counselling support.
*Full data for Fall 2017: AB540 = 3.00%; Full Time F1 Students = 3.55%; In District Resident = 26.67%; In State Resident = 63.98%; Military non resident waiver = 0.11%; Out of State Resident = 2.58%; Part Time F1 Students = 0.02%; SB150 = 0.01%; Undeclared = 0.08%
**Full data in answering “why did you decide to leave?”: 20% = conflict with work schedule; 12% = not satisfied with course; 10% = financial aid issues; 10% = couldn’t get classes; 10% = other (moving, being dropped by instructor); 8% = health reasons; 8% = time off; 8% = transferred; 6% = overwhelmed (course material and size intimidating, not feeling prepared)