Many Cal State schools see enrollments surge during COVID-19 pandemic
Vincent Aguayo wasn't sure he wanted to attend college. At 18 he was already working in construction, making good money putting up drywall, and he was on a path to becoming a supervisor with health benefits.
But then the pandemic hit, and a lot of the people working the jobs to which Aguayo aspired got laid off. He thought of his cousin, who had earned a degree in construction management from California State University, Chico.
"I started thinking I'd rather go to college," said Aguayo, who lives in Nuevo, near Riverside. "These people lose a job, and they don't have a degree — what are they going to do?"
This fall, Aguayo enrolled at California State University, Sacramento, one of thousands of students who pushed the Cal State system to record high enrollment, despite predictions that the pandemic and shift to virtual learning would prompt students to leave in droves. The 23 campuses of the university collectively enrolled 485,549 students in fall 2020, about a 0.75% increase over last fall.
"It's the opposite of what I was expecting," said Andrea Venezia, executive director of the Education Insights Center, an education policy research organization based at the Sacramento campus. Venezia, along with many higher education researchers and administrators nationwide, had braced for predicted dramatic drops.
A number of factors likely contributed to the Cal State system's counterintuitive numbers, university officials and other experts said:
The state universities' bold decision last spring to decide to keep students online in the fall provided certainty during the early tumultuous months of the pandemic. The university's years-long initiative to increase graduation rates has built momentum that students did not want to stop. And the relative affordability of the university — and a push for more financial aid during the pandemic — also helped to keep students enrolled.
Nationally, undergraduate enrollment is down by 4% across all sectors, but public four-year institutions such as the Cal States saw the smallest declines, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Across the country, enrollment among first-time students fell the most precipitously, by 16%, but continuing and transfer students moving from community colleges into universities held steady or ticked up — trends also reflected at the Cal States, where a record share, 85.5%, of first-time freshmen continued on to their second year.
"The enrollment numbers this year clearly reflect the resilience and determination of our students in staying the course to earn a CSU degree," Chancellor Timothy White said in a statement.
Jocelyn Benavides, 19, grew up in public housing in Boyle Heights and was admitted to Cal State Northridge in 2019 through a program designed to improve access to college for low-income and underserved students. She rented an apartment off campus, joined a sorority and spent most of her waking hours at school, taking a full load of classes, going to the library and gym, stopping by the tutoring center and relaxing at the Oasis Wellness Center.
When the pandemic hit, Benavides moved back home, where she lacked dedicated study space, and lost motivation on Zoom and ready access to her professors and tutors. She thought of dropping out and working full-time, but her older sister, who graduated from CSUN and now works at a nonprofit serving youth in their public housing complex, encouraged her to continue.
"I was already going into my second year, I was thinking I might as well continue and finish," Benavides said. "If I get my degree and I graduate, I could probably find a job that would not be a minimum wage job or a job that's hard to find. That motivated me to continue my studies and do something bigger than me so I could help out my community and my family."
Benavides' story is not uncommon. "Academic momentum does play a role — we know that from plenty of 'normal' situations," said Michal Kurlaender, education department chair and professor and researcher of education policy at UC Davis.
The Cal State system could not yet provide enrollment data disaggregated by race and ethnicity, income or first-generation status. Luoluo Hong, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management, said "right now there's no indication" that students from underserved groups dropped out at higher rates.
However, at the national level this fall, undergraduate enrollment dropped the most among international, Native American and Black students, closely followed by white students. What Kurlaender and others find perhaps most troubling is that in California, enrollment in community colleges — attended by 60% of post-secondary students in public institutions, large shares of whom are low-income, Latino and Black — is down about 8%.