Impact of Covid-19 on California Community College Enrollment and Students’ Outcomes

by Dr. Sujung Kim

**This essay is a reflection on the paper entitled, The Impact of Covid-19 on Community College Enrollment and Student Success: Evidence From California Administrative Data authored by George Bulman and Rober W. Fairlie, which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in March, 2022.**

Most recent reports and articles point out a consistent decline in college attendance (June, May 26, 2022; Hatch, June 16, 2022; Bulman & Fairlie, March, 2022). Overall, undergraduate enrollment across the nation has decreased 4.7 percent, more than 662,000 students, since spring 2021. According to a May 2022 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate student enrollment has decreased by about 1.4 million students.Public institutions lost 604,000 students (5.0% decrease from a year ago), and, in particular, community colleges lost 351,000 students this spring, and more than 827,000 students since the pandemic.

Considering such distinctive pandemic-related enrollment decrease especially at community colleges, this essay analyzes the report entitled The Impact of Covid-19 on Community College Enrollment and Student Success: Evidence From California Administrative Data authored by Gorege Bulman and Robert W. Fairlie (March, 2022). Community colleges are crucial institutions: not only in terms of public undergraduate education, as nearly half of undergraduate students in public institutions are enrolled at community college, but also because of the fact that half of community college students are students of color. The California Community College System is the largest community college system in the U.S., as well as the largest higher education system in the world (California Career Center, California Community College System,

This research report, which utilized administrative college-level panel data that includes courses taken and academic outcomes as well as enrollment, addresses 5 research questions:
1. Did community colleges experience falling enrollment during the first four semesters of the pandemic (spring 2020 through fall 2021) in contrast to the UC and CSU systems?
2. In fall 2020 and fall 2021, were new students dissuaded from enrolling at community colleges, and was this effect larger than for continuing students trying to stay on track with their educational goals?
3. Which types of courses were affected the most? Did enrollment decline differ for vocational courses as opposed to academic courses that can be transferred to four-year institutions, and how did trends differ across fields of study?
4. Were falling enrollments in the pandemic concentrated in a few community colleges or were losses spread across all campuses, and did having a larger online presence prior to the pandemic insulate certain colleges from enrollment losses?
5. How were course loads, completion, and grades affected by the pandemic? (Bulman & Fairlie, March 2022, pp. 2-3)

Building on the five research questions, this essay will discuss the findings of this research in three sections:
1. California community college enrollment trend
2. Community college student outcomes
3. Suggestions

California Community College Enrollment Trend

Bulman and Fairlie (March, 2022) found that, in contrast to stable enrollment in the California State University and University of California systems, California community colleges experienced a rapid decrease in enrollment during the first four semesters of the pandemic (p. 3). In Spring 2020, the total number of students dropped by more than 50,000 students (-4%) and it continued to drop by 180,000 students (-11%) in fall 2020. Overall, from fall 2019 (just prior to the pandemic) to fall 2021, the enrollment of community colleges in California dropped by nearly 300,000 students (-17%).

Bulman and Fairilie reported that reduced enrollment was observed in all racial and ethnic groups. In particular, African American, Latinx, Asian American students experienced the largest drops. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, African American student enrollment dropped by 20 percent (17,5000 students), Latinx enrollment dropped by 18 percent (135,000 students), and Asian American students dropped by 16 percent (28,000 students).

In addition to the trend of decreased enrollment among first-time community college students, students returning to college, and students continuing with their education, Bulman and Fairlie concluded that having a connection to a community college and moving classes online did not affect negative enrollment trends (p. 7). Interestingly, the community colleges that provided a large number of online classes prior to the pandemic experienced a sharp enrollment decrease, although courses were converted to online format during the pandemic.

Based on course type and field, Bulman and Fairlie indicate that in the case of vocational courses, enrollment fell “by 14 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, and 4 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021” (p. 9). In the case of academic courses that are transferable to 4-year colleges, the enrollment “fell 13 percent in fall 2020 and 9 percent in fall 2021” (p. 9). As such, the 9 percent decrease of the enrollment in academic courses transferable to 4-year institutions is bigger than the decrease in the vocational enrollment, which fell by 4 percent.

In addition, it is worthy to note the recent trend of significant decline in college-going rates among the high school graduates in several particular states including Indiana, West Virginia, Arizona, Kansas and Tennessee (Hatch, June 16, 2022). The statistics in this news article indicate the rate for the “percentage of public high-school graduates who enroll in college within a year.” According to Hatch, in the case of Indiana, the “college-going rate for 2020 high-school graduates declined six percentage points from 2019 – the sharpest one-year decline in at least a generation.”. Regarding the factors that affected decreased college-going rate, Keely Pietkiwiez, scholarship coordinator for the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee and a former college counselor, states:

If you graduate and start working and your family is relying on that income, but then
you get a spot in school, it’s very hard for you…. they ‘re going to stay at one level
with just the high school degree and not be able to move up because they can’t take a
break in their life at that point. (Hatch, June 16, 2022)

This accounts for the decline of the enrollment. We can assume that low-income high school graduates and continuing community college students who dropped out during the pandemic have faced many challenges, including financial issues, when trying to enter or to go back to college during and after the pandemic.

Community College Student Outcomes

To measure student academic outcomes during the first four semesters of the pandemic, Bulman and Fairlie (March, 2022) examined students’ course completion rates and grades. In this report, course completion means “receiving a passing grade,” as opposed to “failing, dropping and withdrawing from the course” (p. 11).

Building on administrative college-level panel data, Bulman and Fairlie explain that compared to the 72 percent rate of course completion in Spring 2019, in spring 2020, course completion dropped to 69 percent, and in the fall of 2020, there was no change from the fall of 2019 (70 percent in both cases) (p. 11).

The main factors that affected the fall in course completion were course withdrawal and course failure. However, in spring 2021, the course completion rates rebounded to 72 percent. In explaining the decrease in fail rates, Bulman and Fairlie (March, 2022) argue that instructors were probably being more generous in grading. In grading, Bulman and Fairlie found that the “percentage of courses with A’s increased from 40 percent in spring 2019 to 50 percent in spring 2020” (p. 13), and decreased to 47 percent in Spring 2021.


Bulman & Fairlie (March, 2022) highlight the vulnerability of community college enrollment, and their findings resonate with other studies’ findings on community college enrollment during the pandemic (see Brock and Diwa, 2021). Bulman and Fairlie point out the effect of the decreased community college enrollment on providing quality programs and, in addition, the impact on students’ beliefs about community college education and training’s economic value.

As such, Bulman and Fairlie (March, 2022) demonstrate the significance of extended financial support from the federal and state governments, and active support such as “short-term gap funding to fill the void created from lost tuition and other expenditures by students” (p. 16). In California, governor Gavin Newsom allocated significant funding dedicated to retaining and re-enrolling community college students and providing additional grants, as well as supports such as making community college tuition free.

For further research, Bulman and Fairlie propose to examine whether such initiatives supporting community colleges were effective in recovering community college enrollments, and in turn, students’ further educational and career development. In addition, it would be critical to investigate the reasons why high school graduates have not enrolled, and why continuing community college students took leaves, and the issues and barriers preventing them from enrolling or re-enrolling in community colleges.


Bulman, G., & Fairlie, R. W. (2022, March). The impact of Covid-19 on community college enrollment and student success: Evidence from California administrative data (Working Paper 28715). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Brock, T. & Diwa, C. (2021). Catastrophe or catalyst? Reflections on COVID’s impact on community colleges. Journal of Postsecondary Student Success, 1(2), 2-17.

California Career Center. (n.d.). California Community College System. California Career Center.

Hatch, B. (2022, June 16). Why fewer high-school graduates are going to college. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

June, A. W. (2022, May 26). Drop in spring-2022 enrollment is worse than expected. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2022, May 26). Spring 2022 Current Term Enrollment Estimates.