How some college counselors are fighting back against pandemic-induced enrollment decline

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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

IN SUMMARY

Thousands of California high school graduates didn’t go to college last year due to the pandemic. The drop, which mostly affected community colleges, might be temporary, but it showed the need to provide more support for students going from high school to college. A new counseling program in Riverside County aims to do just that.

In early June, 19-year-old Brian Cruz was on a break from his warehouse job at Amazon, listening to music. He scrolled through the messages on his phone and saw an email from the college and career center at his old high school in Hemet, a high desert town in Southern California. 

Even though Cruz graduated from Tahquitz High School last year, the email invited him to make an appointment with a school counselor. Last spring, Cruz decided to put off college and work while he waited out the pandemic. 

But a year of packing boxes at Amazon and a lifetime of seeing family members work manual labor made him anxious to go back to school as soon as possible. “I was happy to get that email, because I really didn’t know what to do,” he said. 

Cruz is one of the first students to participate in College Comeback, a counseling program launched by the Riverside County Office of Education at the end of May. A team of six spends 25 hours a week reaching out to the high school class of 2020 after data revealed that 2,300 fewer students ⁠— a decline of around 8% ⁠— went to college in fall 2020 compared to the year before. 

The numbers from Riverside County mirror trends in other parts of the state and the country. Nationally, college going rates for students straight out of high school were down 13% overall and 22% at community colleges in fall 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a non-profit that tracks enrollment data. Experts attribute the enrollment decline to the COVID-19 pandemic and aren’t sure how soon — or whether — those numbers will bounce back.

“That’s one in five freshmen who would have been expected to go to a community college this fall that simply didn’t show up,” said Doug Shapiro, executive research director at the Clearinghouse, during a presentation for the Education Writers Association in May. 

Coming back

A few days after getting the email from the school counselor, Cruz logged onto a Zoom appointment with counselor Yuri Nava. He told her he’d been accepted to University of California Riverside last year, but didn’t enroll after he found out classes would be online. 

Nava informed him he’d missed the Nov. 30 deadline for the upcoming school year, so he’d have to wait until fall 2022 to start at UC Riverside. No one had told Cruz that he had the option to defer his admission a year, he said. 

Nava then walked Cruz through his options, encouraging him to think about community college.

She worked with Cruz on filling out his financial aid application, also known as the FAFSA, and booked another appointment to complete his application and select classes at Riverside City College.

“I don’t know where I even have to begin,” he said. “I’ve been talking to people from (colleges) and they haven’t really been very clear on what I actually have to do to get into the school and choose the classes. I mean I tried it, but I really couldn’t do it myself.”

College Comeback has been a boon to students like Cruz, but time will tell how many students the program will be able to reach. Outreach to students last summer showed how challenging it can be to get large numbers of students to reengage in higher education, but also how effective one-on-one counseling can be for individual students. 

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Story BY CHARLOTTE WEST AND ANGEL FABRE