Here’s what we know. Well, it’s what we thought we knew. At any rate, this is what the California Community College website tells us: • More than 2.1 million students at 115 colleges, the California Community Colleges is the largest system of higher education in the country. • One in every four community college students in the nation attend a California community college. Wow! That’s a really big deal no matter what filter you put on the lens. California has the largest state population at forty million residents. It has the largest state economy in the nation, and if it were a country it would be the fifth largest economy in the world. And the largest system of higher education in the world is its community college system, or as we once called it - junior colleges.
We don’t really know the true number of community college students because the California Community College Chancellor’s Office has been unable to track accurate enrollment data since the pandemic began. According to the non-profit EdSource, “The system website designed to provide the enrollment of the 115 local community colleges across the state has carried a red-lettered warning for months: Don’t trust the numbers. ‘Research or reporting using this data for terms starting with Spring 2020 is not currently supported and is not recommended.’” It’s like Lollapalooza; 400,000 people attended…more or less…we think…hard to tell.
The transition to virtual classes across the system necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic complicated enrollment counts because of the difficulty tracking students who enrolled but dropped out without officially withdrawing from courses. Numbers matter here because state funding of community colleges is tied to enrollment. Due to the current enrollment fog, California has allowed community colleges to use enrollment data from the non-pandemic/pre-enrollment-decline year to ensure funding stability.
Further complicating the accurate head count is an enrollment scam. Bots filed 65,000 fake applications from first-time students older than 30, earning less than $40,000 annually and seeking a two-year degree. About $270 million in federal Covid relief grants was distributed through the end of 2020 to more than 439,000 California community college students, including more than 56,000 who dropped out after receiving the grants. Those students also received California and federal financial aid, but the California community college office doesn’t know how many of the those who received the cash were in reality just bots. Anti-bot software installed in July estimates that 20% of the traffic to the application portal is malicious and the filter is stopping 15% of it. The scam rolls on.
Looking ahead, President Biden’s American Families Plan will pump $109 billion into two-year free community colleges, and $62 billion more for colleges to implement degree and certificate strategies for current and returning students. California will certainly receive the lion’s share, but they must design new programs based on accurate enrollment data to qualify.
Accurate enrollment data matters. State funding of our community colleges depends on it, student retention programs depend on it, and future federal assistance depends on it. Because of faulty and/or incomplete data, we don’t know how many digital thieves are posing as returning adult students. Over two million students could be affected by the enrollment data break down. That’s two million…give or take…more or less…we think…hard to tell.