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Overwhelming Online Course Demand Reshapes Community Colleges in California

A recent feature published by the Los Angeles Times demonstrates how the demand for online courses is transforming significant portions of the higher education landscape across the United States: “The demand for virtual classes represents a dramatic shift in how instruction is delivered in one of the nation’s largest systems of public higher education,” writes the Times’ higher education reporter Debbie Truong.

It’s not difficult to understand why California’s community college students would seek to continue the flexibility afforded by online education that many first experienced during the pandemic. Truong points out that they’re typically older than undergraduates at four-year universities, and come from low-income backgrounds. Online instruction not only saves them money on commuting, but enables these students to better manage their work, family, and childcare obligations.

In 2019, four-fifths of California community college classes were conducted fully in person, only 15 percent were fully remote, and five percent were hybrid—a mix of online and in-person—according to a January 2022 analysis prepared for the governor’s office by Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the former chancellor of the 116-campus California Community Colleges system. But two years later, these statistics were nearly inverted, with only 25 percent of classes on campus, 65 percent remote, and 10 percent hybrid.

That’s actually a staggering 275 percent surge in the number of classes delivered at least partially online, although Truong’s article doesn’t draw that essential conclusion for the Times’ readers. But what Truong’s article does well is summarize some of the specific experiences of colleges that are part of the Chancellor’s statistics. For example:

  • In Silicon Valley, 40 percent of courses at Santa Clara County’s Evergreen Valley College and San Jose City College are now completely remote.
  • In the Los Angeles Community College District’s nine campuses, almost 60 percent of all classes are at least partially remote, with half fully remote and an additional seven percent are hybrid. Only 43 percent are taught in person.
  • At Whittier’s Rio Hondo Community College, 50 percent of the school’s 1,519 courses are online.
  • At East Los Angeles College, this term’s courses are 50 percent online. That’s a 400 percent increase because in 2019, the school only offered 10 percent of its classes online.

Similar Online Course Demand in Oregon

This overwhelming demand for online courses is not unique to the State of California. In July and October 2022, two Oregon community college officials (Mt. Hood Community College President Dr. Lisa Skari and Central Oregon Community College President Dr. Laurie Chesley) told Oregon Public Broadcasting in this interview that they were observing a similar trend.

Dr. Chesley pointed out that about 2.7 percent of the 7200 students at COCC took online courses as recently as 2017. But during the 2021-2022 academic year, “those numbers are almost even. It is approximately a 3,000 headcount of students taking online and approximately 3,000 taking face-to-face,” said Dr. Chesley.

Polling Shows Students Prefer Online Courses

The immense online demand in these states is also consistent with preferences expressed by community college students in recent polls.

For example, a November 2021 poll of 400 prospective higher education enrollees in California revealed that online course access was one of the biggest drivers that would motivate them to attend a community college.

Moreover, polling firm Bay View Analytics conducted one of the most comprehensive of these surveys for the educational content provider Cengage Group. Called the Digital Learning Pulse Survey and summarized in this infographic, Cengage’s May 2022 analysis of the responses from 1,246 community college students across America revealed several surprising insights:

  • Seventy-six percent of all students would like to take fully online courses. That’s compared with 68 percent the previous fall, a 12 percent increase.
  • Eighty-eight percent of the students currently enrolled in fully online courses want to take more of them. Of the students enrolled in hybrid classes, 76 percent want to take fully online courses. And even among the students enrolled in classes on campus, 60 percent want fully online courses, a nine percent jump from the 55 percent expressing that preference only six months earlier.
  • Cengage then asked the sample, “How well are your online courses meeting your educational needs?” More than half the sample—62 percent—awarded their online learning experience a grade of “A” in contrast to the 40 percent who did so in 2021. That’s a 55 percent increase.

How the Enrollment Crisis Boosted Online Course Counts

At the same time that demand for online courses is exploding, overall community college enrollment is plummeting. Although not emphasized by the Times article, this trend is relevant because it helps explain community college policymakers’ swift and decisive responses in response to the increased demand for online and hybrid courses.

In a September 2022 article about new financial incentives and perks offered by community colleges to attract students, the Sacramento-based news service CalMatters published a dramatic graph depicting how California’s community college enrollment had plummeted by 20 percent between 2020 and 2022. Based on slightly earlier raw data, a March 2022 headcount and enrollment estimate prepared for the California Community Colleges Board of Governors concurred with this 20 percent decline.

The pandemic is not the only reason this enrollment crisis developed into a trend so rapidly. An October 2022 memorandum prepared for community college leaders by CCC Executive Vice Chancellor for Institutional Supports and Success Lizette Navarette presents two additional explanations for the trend. The first reason she cites relates to changing demographics:

Prior to the pandemic, college enrollments were already projected to decline. Enrollment at K-12 schools has been flat for a number of years and California’s population growth is at its lowest point since the 1800s. Further, the Department of Finance released projections anticipating that K-12 student enrollment will drop by 9 percent by 2030 and maybe twice that in some counties.

Dr. Navarette’s second reason relates to changes in students’ needs and preferences, and competition from for-profit colleges attempting to better meet those students’ needs:

. . .changes in the way students prefer to attend classes have worked to exacerbate the enrollment declines over the past two years. . .Many for-profit colleges offer short-term sequenced courses that lead to a degree or certificate. . .We want to encourage colleges to explore this scheduling option to increase student success and decrease the time to completion.

The Progress Toward Graduation Controversy

In the typically stable world of public college admissions, a loss of one-fifth of student enrollment statewide during only 24 months marks an unprecedented and historic crisis. Under pressure in the face of suddenly plummeting enrollment, the state’s community college policymakers quickly pivoted to accommodate the change in student preferences for online instruction rather than risk losing more students. Such a pivot is consistent with the California higher education system’s longtime objective of making community colleges accessible to all citizens.

However, Truong points out in her article that controversy now exists because the policymakers’ pivot raises questions about how the community college system can maintain quality instruction, so students make progress toward graduation. And graduation progress has always been an especially hot issue at community colleges in the United States.

That’s because one estimate put the number of students who transfer to a four-year university within three years of enrolling at a community college at only 15.7 percent. In fact, across the nation, most community college students—about 60 percent—never graduate. And one especially heartbreaking aspect of that situation is that nationally, about one in ten of all those students who drop out before earning an associate’s degree is only a few credits away from graduation.

As University of Maine economics professor Philip Trostel revealed in the extensive study he conducted for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston entitled “The Fiscal Impacts of College Attainment,” this is a profoundly tragic loss for those students unable to transfer to four-year universities. That’s because their lifetime earnings will suffer so dramatically.

Dr. Trostel found that the lifetime net fiscal effect per degree from public institutions in current 2022 dollars, on average, amounts to a staggering amount of money over the course of a lifetime: at least $665,464. That’s also a tragic loss for society, because those citizens will be less likely to vote, volunteer, and pay more in taxes.

The Resource Allocation Controversy

The administrators’ pivot also raises additional questions about how campus physical plant needs might change. Moreover, so long as some students still want to attend college on campus, this student market segment can make scheduling and resource allocation challenging for the colleges and their leaders.

These resource and physical plant shutdown concerns were instantly apparent to a veteran reporter and expert education policy analyst, Dr. Louis Freedberg, during his visits to Bay Area campuses during April 2022. Dr. Freedberg writes for EdSource:

Students’ shifting preferences were on display at three colleges that I recently visited in the Oakland area, all part of the Peralta Community College District. They were virtually deserted.

At Oakland’s Laney College, a large banner in the central courtyard read “Laney Students: The Heart and Soul of the Campus,” alongside bright photos of student activities, many of which are now on hold.

The benches below the banner were empty. It was hard to find a student anywhere in the places one would normally see them, except for the occasional student attending lab classes or others that require in-person instruction.

On a recent Monday, Merritt College, high up in the Oakland hills, the main parking lot, in front of the state-of-the-art Barbara Lee Science and Allied Health building, was almost empty.

The library, which is only open Tuesday through Thursday, was shuttered with a large roll-up security grille, an unnerving sight on any college campus.

Merritt College President David Johnson explained that his college was projecting to have 50 percent of courses taught in person and 50 percent remotely this semester—a big jump from the fall when most courses were still online, as they were across the entire college system.

But it didn’t pan out that way. Merritt faculty were ready to come back, but many more students signed up for online courses, forcing the college to pivot in response to their preferences. About two-thirds of courses are being offered remotely this semester, Johnson says. In the fall, college leaders are hoping that at least half of classes will be offered in person, but it’s not yet clear if that will happen.

Is Increased Demand for Online Courses Permanent?

Experts suggest that this overwhelming demand for online courses will likely become permanent at California’s community colleges.

For example, Public Policy Institute of California Research Associate Daniel Payares-Montoya told the Times, “It may never go back to what it was before the pandemic. Students are going to keep demanding more and more online education.”

And Chancellor Ortiz Oakley told Dr. Freedberg, “I don’t see our students ever going back to the one-size-fits-all approach that they came to be used to in our colleges. The trends we are identifying are not suddenly going to reverse themselves.”

Douglas Mark

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani and AT&T.

Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. He graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.