College and COVID-19: Declining Enrollment at the SRJC

While the interest of local students in pursuing a university education at the lower expense of the Santa Rosa Junior College seemingly predicted a dramatic spike in enrollment, the reality of the situation at the SRJC―as well as with community colleges across the nation―is exactly the opposite.

Owen Hite, Reporter

After nearly three quarters of a year impacted by public health guidelines and COVID-19 restrictions, the fall college application deadlines for high school seniors are rapidly approaching. While some students plan to apply to out-of-state universities and four-year institutions, others are left curious as to whether local community colleges are a more viable option for them if classes at all colleges remain primarily online. 

While the interest of local students in pursuing a university education at the lower expense of the Santa Rosa Junior College seemingly predicted a dramatic spike in enrollment, the reality of the situation at the SRJC―as well as with community colleges across the nation―is exactly the opposite. Vayta Smith, Director of Admissions and Enrollment Services at the SRJC, captures the abnormality of the 2020-2021 school year.

“The college cannot offer in person courses, and a lot of students cannot do online courses, due to many reasons: they’re watching their kids at home, no internet access, and a lot of our courses require in person labs. So with that, we’ve had to cut it close to 300 sections this fall,” said Smith.

 There are options to hasten the reintroduction of technical and hands-on courses, such as by obtaining a waiver of country approval to resume nursing, biology, and other research-related majors. However, reorganizing students and facilities to satisfy safety requirements within these waivers is economically challenging for community colleges, because twice the allotment of time and wages will be necessary to serve the same student population. Dr. Frank Chong, President of the SRJC, explains the financial difficulties of these scenarios.

“We could certainly use more funding to help pay for PPE equipment to get our classrooms ready for if we would open in a post COVID environment where you need the plexiglass, and you need the mask, and you need the sanitizer, and you need certain types of janitorial equipment,” said Chong, “But we’re just going to have to make do with what we have.”

The funding for such equipment would induce a substantial burden on non-profit organizations like the junior college, creating an overall monetary loss by reviving in-person learning. Resultantly, even as lab-based programs reemerge into the school curriculum, admissions directors such as Smith believe that the difficulty of accommodating social distancing guidelines only furthers the decline in the student population.

“We’re bringing them back at 15 students per course instead of the normal 30, but that takes so much resource because we can’t have so many students, so it’s almost cutting our student population in half. We have plenty of students wanting to take those courses but we just don’t have the manpower,” said Smith.

Even though the lack of staff for core classes may indicate a spike in popularity, the reasons behind the need for increased section quantities contradict this appearance. Jalydon Love, a Casa Grande graduate and second-year nursing major at the SRJC, describes how the lessened capacity for teaching students has translated into an unpredictable course enrollment.

“It really depends on the class: some classes don’t have as many students as I thought there would be, but sometimes those classes–like nutrition–get pretty full pretty quick,” said Love. 

Despite the curious consequences or declining enrollment, much of the abnormality can be linked to the current health crisis. Given predictions from health experts regarding the longevity of the Corona-virus–as well as the unpredictability or a university education–the question now posed to graduating seniors is plain, yet difficult: Is opting out of college the next best decision? Admissions directors such as Smith have a decisive, yet cautionary response to this matter.

Sometimes going to work is more important than education. So we understand students that have to work―we encourage it. I think it’s fine, given all the stresses and situations, but don’t put it off too long. Because then it’s hard to go back to school”

— Vayta Smith

“Sometimes going to work is more important than education. So we understand students that have to work―we encourage it. I think it’s fine, given all the stresses and situations, but don’t put it off too long. Because then it’s hard to go back to school,” said Smith.

While some students may be ready to venture to a university or community college amidst this year’s confusion and uncertainty, the right choice for others may just be to follow Smith’s advice and take the year to think.