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Undergraduate enrollment at California State Universities continues suffering from a pandemic-related decline as fewer transfer students arrive from the state’s community colleges.
Although freshman numbers have returned to pre-coronavirus pandemic levels for the first time, transfer declines are impacting Cal State’s 23 campuses.
“We now face a challenge that requires our collective and immediate attention, as well as a determination to be nimble and creative in our adjustments,” Interim Chancellor Jolene Koester recently told trustees of the system’s registration challenge.
Total undergraduate enrollments for the Cal State system fell again this fall to 404,820 students — about 17,500 fewer students than last year. The decline continues a trend that started last year. Despite the pandemic, CSU saw enrollment gains in 2020, but through 2021, 17 of 23 campuses saw declines. This fall, only three campuses saw slight increases in enrollments: Cal Poly Humboldt, CSU San Bernardino, and San Diego State.
“I want to get that straight,” she said. “This is not a single university or campus issue. This is a system problem.”
The decline in enrollments is primarily due to fewer new transfer students and more full-time students transitioning to part-time, Koester said.
The main source for transfers to the CSU are the adult education centres. New transfers from community colleges were down by about 12,000 students, she said. This year the system enrolled 46,323 transfer students — the lowest number number in seven years.
The decrease in transfers assumes a domino effect Record low enrollment at the country’s adult education centres. Since 2019, the 115 physical community colleges have lost around 300,000 students. The system’s 1.8 million registrations are the lowest in 30 years.
A recent report from the Public Policy Institute of California explained that community college losses are largely due to the pandemic and the long-term impact of falling birth rates.
According to PPIC, “the declines may have set back the California higher education system” by limiting its ability to “encourage economic mobility among the historically underrepresented.”
“A sustained decline in enrollment throughout the CSU represents a fundamental and significant threat to our mission,” said Köster. “It poses a fundamental and significant threat to the viability of our universities and the future of the communities those universities serve. A sustained decline in enrollment will result in lower tuition and campus fees.”
But the CSU is not alone. NationalPublic four-year universities lost 1.4 million students between 2019, the year before the pandemic, and the spring of 2022, down 3.4%.
Koester said that “now is not the time to panic,” and CSU has met with officials in the governor’s and legislature’s offices to update them on the situation. The system expects it to be more than 25,000 fewer Full-time students – nearly 7% – below the funded enrollment target for California residents for 2022-23.
Earlier this year, CSU reached a budget agreement with the governor’s office to receive 5% financial increases over the next five years, including progress on increasing enrollment. CSU agreed to admit 14,000 more students over a four-year period through 2026-27. This corresponds to an annual enrollment growth of 1%.
Koester said leaders in the governor’s and legislature’s offices “understand that declining enrollment isn’t just for the CSU, it’s more of a national trend,” and the ongoing impact of the pandemic has exacerbated existing demographic changes.
Meanwhile, the Chancellery is meeting with campus presidents and senior administrators to develop strategies to increase applications and student retention, she said. One bright spot for the Cal State system is that the system continues to attract new students. First-year enrollment rose to more than 65,000 students, Koester said: Adding that the freshman group system has returned to its pre-pandemic numbers.
For example, CSU recently partnered with Los Angeles Unified to “better support schools with low enrollment rates,” Koester said.
And there are some positive signs for the future. For the autumn of 2023, around 120,000 more applications have been received by the CSU than in the previous year, said Köster. Last week Cal Poly Humboldt announced that according to preliminary data, applications from freshmen have increased by 86% compared to the previous year.
But the transfer of applications to the system continues to be delayed, Koester said.
“I am indeed encouraged by the positive signs our work has produced,” she said Referring to the ongoing effort to attract and retain new students.
EdSource data journalist Daniel J. Willis contributed to this story.
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