Increasing Student Enrollment and Reducing Student Unit Accumulation: A Community College Paradox

ASCCC Vice President
Faculty Association of California Community Colleges President

In January 2022, faculty at one California community college received the following communication:

You may be aware of our lagging enrollments. Like community colleges across the state and country, our enrollments are down significantly.  Compared to last spring, we’re down approximately 10%, and last spring we had fallen 10% from Spring of 2020—a loss of approximately 2,200 students from Spring 2021 to Spring 2022.

Faculty throughout the California Community Colleges system are receiving similar notifications, which are not unique to 2022. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollments across the state had been declining. From 2010-2011 to 2020-2021, the system saw a reduction of 217,005 annual full-time equivalent students (FTES) --  1,279,577 to 1,062,572—which is nearly a 17% decline in annual FTES over the ten-year time span.

CCCCO Datamart 1/12/2022

Total head count and credit FTES have declined since 2016-17, and that decline has been accelerated following the COVID-19 pandemic.

CCCCO Datamart 1/16/22

Trends have shown that during a recession, when unemployment is high, enrollment increases, and during a strong economy, when unemployment is low, enrollment declines. However, a pandemic does not instigate a typical recession, and the economy may not only impact enrollment. Nationally, all sectors of college enrollments are down; however, the community colleges are most affected. Across the country, the typical college-age student population is declining. The total cost of college is prohibitive for many, even those who receive the college promise. The pandemic has driven up wages, and many students have chosen to work more.

From ​​National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

As colleges are working to increase enrollment, or at a minimum slow the decline in enrollment, they should be aware that some efforts intended to improve educational opportunities for students may also be leading to enrollment decline. California’s community colleges and policy makers have goals to increase student enrollment and at the same time reduce student unit accumulation. Colleges are not funded on actual student head-count; a large majority of California community college funding is based on FTES, which are based on student contact hours, which are based on the courses that students take.

Over the past decade, California has been subjected to numerous legislative mandates aimed at innovation to streamline and simplify the pathways for students to earn associate degrees, certificates, and transfer to four-year institutions. The initiatives frequently include a focus on reducing the number of excess units or courses taken.

In general, an associate degree is not required for transfer, and many students still transfer to the California State University (CSU) or University of California (UC) systems without earning an associate degree.[1] Senate Bill 1440 (Padilla, 2010), which led to the creation of the associate degree for transfer (ADT), guaranteed transfer to the CSU system for students that earned an ADT. While the minimum number of semester units required to earn any associate degree in the California Community Colleges system is 60, Padilla’s legislation required that an ADT could be earned by completing no more than 60 semester units. In the following years, SB 1456 (Lowenthal, 2012) and SB 440 (Padilla, 2013) strengthened the mandate of the ADTs. In 2014, Assembly Bill 1451 (Holden) on dual enrollment encouraged partnership agreements between high schools and community colleges to assist high school students in completing courses that fulfilled high school and college credit simultaneously.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office took such initiatives further in 2017 with its focus on transfer through the Vision for Success,[2] setting ambitious goals of increasing the number of associate degree awards, increasing transfer, and decreasing unit accumulation. The Vision for Success helped drive additional legislative mandates, including AB 705 (Irwin, 2017), which would significantly reduce remedial course offerings. College districts were strongly encouraged to place all students directly into transfer-level English and mathematics and to eliminate reading programs. In that same year, the guided pathways framework was introduced, designed to streamline a student's pathway to completion, thus reducing excess unit accumulation. The California Community Colleges funding model also changed in 2018 with the Student Centered Funding Formula, minimizing the funding for enrollment and maximizing monetary awards for transfer, degree attainment, and completion of transfer-level mathematics and English within the student’s first academic year.

These initiatives focused on getting students through transfer-level English and mathematics and reducing credit basic skills or remedial education. Fall-to-fall FTES for credit courses has, for the most part, steadily declined, nearly 14% from Fall 2011 (511,874 FTES) to Fall 2020 (440,937 FTES). In particular, enrollments in English and mathematics have declined, about 9% and 20% respectively. However, a significant increase in enrollments took place during the middle years of that period, resulting in a reduction of approximately 18% and 29%, respectively, from the highest enrollment to the lowest during those years. Reading has mostly been eliminated, and English as a second language has been reduced by nearly 68%. The decrease in English and mathematics FTES is about 22% of the overall loss of FTES in the community college system.

CCCCO Datamart 1/12/2022

The most recent legislation is AB 928 (Berman, 2021), the Student Transfer Achievement Reform Act, signed by the governor in October 2021. This law will effectively reduce the number of units students are required to take for their associate degree for transfer and require that colleges place students on an ADT pathway if an ADT has been established in their stated major and they have stated a goal of transfer.[3] One major component of the legislation is the creation of a single general education pathway for transfer to both the CSU and UC systems, limiting the total units of that pathway to 34 semester units, which reduces the current CSU requirement by five semester units.

While the provisions of AB 928 may reduce the number of units accumulated by associate degree earners to 79 from 84, meeting one of the goals from the Vision for Success, the potential impact on FTES systemwide should be noted. For example, given that the cohort of first-time associate degree earners in 2019-2020 numbered 118,094, a decrease of five required semester units per student would be an estimated system loss of 4,921 FTES annually for four years, assuming students earn degrees in four years. The total loss would be 19,682 FTES over four years for one cohort. On the upside, ADTs in STEM majors may have some flexibility, permitting up to six additional semester units due to major preparation requirements, although the general education units would not be impacted.

While the authors, sponsors, and supporters of these initiatives may have the students’ best interest as their primary goal, the initiatives do reduce enrollment. Such legislative mandates make increasing enrollment even more complex, yet enrollment is the primary basis for college funding. Thus, an unintentional paradox has been embedded into the goals of the California Community Colleges system.

In light of this situation, local academic senates should consider the following:

  • Explore, understand, and share the impacts of the competing goals when evaluating data for program review, including increased enrollment and reduced student unit accumulation.
  • Applaud the successes of new policy and address challenges early on.
  • Appoint a local senate legislative liaison [4] and regularly discuss upcoming legislation [5] and its effects at local academic senate meetings. Share pros and cons with other college constituencies including the college president, district chancellor, and board of trustees.
  • Refocus conversations to advocate for funding based on resources needed for student success.
  • Meet with legislators and ensure that system practitioners are providing valuable feedback on proposed legislation.
  • Explore and discuss the pros and cons of proposed legislation and the possible unintended consequences.

[1] The CSU Student Enrollment Dashboard may be found at

The UC Transfer fall admissions summary may be found at

[2] The text of the California Community Colleges Vision for Success can be found at

[3] Students may opt out of the ADT under certain conditions.

[4] Information on legislative liaison positions is available at

[5] ASCCC legislative updates are available at