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Amidst fear of a student loss pandemic, University of California enrollment remains unchanged

Hourann Bosci / Flickr

Enrollment across the UC system was flat this fall. Pictured above is the UCLA campus.

Enrollment at the University of California is expected to remain stable this fall, with a small increase in college students – encouraging signs for the system amid Covid -19 , which has caused most public universities across the country to lose students.

The enrollment update is one of the few bright spots in the current condition of the university's budget, which was presented to the system's Board of Regents on Thursday. The 10-campus system has faced significant revenue losses during the pandemic, prompting UC to seek more help in the 2021-22 state budget to make up most of it. But very few of those losses can be attributed to enrollment changes.

The state's other four-year public college system, California State University, has also grappled with national enrollment trends, and has seen increases in enrollment at more than half of its 23 campuses. The same cannot be said for the third segment of public universities in the state, California's 116 community college system. That system is experiencing enrollment drops of up to 20% at some universities, according to initial estimates.

Nationally, undergraduate enrollment in public universities is down 4.4% compared to last year, including a 1.9% drop in public universities of four years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That includes a 10.5% decrease in the number of freshmen at those four-year colleges.

But across the University of California, the number of freshmen is expected to increase by 2.5% compared to fall 2019. Enrollment figures for the system are only preliminary estimates and not final data.

Nathan Brostrom, the system's chief financial officer, called the enrollment figures "a very, very positive sign."

"Especially when you watch the news across the country," he added.

The only drop in undergraduate enrollment for the university system has been among non-California undergraduate students, which could include international students or students from other states. The university expects a 3.4% drop in enrollment among these students. That is expected to result in a loss of about $ 38 million in tuition revenue for out-of-state students, who pay more for tuition. Brostrom added, however, that many of those students are juniors or seniors who are taking a semester or quarter off and are expected to return at some point.

The university has also seen a decrease of less than 1% among graduate students, which Brostrom attributed to a drop in international student enrollment.

At CSU, which enrolls 480,000 undergraduate students, enrollment trends have varied from campus to campus, but have generally been relatively encouraging.

Several of the campuses in that system have experienced significant increases in enrollment, such as Fresno State, where enrollment increased by 5%. Some campuses, such as Humboldt State, have seen enrollment declines, while enrollment has been mostly flat at others, including Cal State LA.

Unlike CSU and UC, California's community college system has not been able to offset national enrollment trends, preliminary data indicates. At a meeting of the system's Board of Governors this week, State Chancellor Eloy Oakley said early estimates show that enrollment has dropped as much as 20% at some colleges.

Oakley emphasized that those numbers could continue to fluctuate this fall, noting that at some colleges, such as Bakersfield College, enrollment has increased.

"So it is too early to say exactly what impact this will have on our system," he said.

Even with the positive news about enrollment for the University of California, the system is likely to continue to face fiscal challenges.

This year, the state cut about $ 300 million in ongoing funding from the system's budget, which would only have been restored if the federal government approved another stimulus package before October 15 . Since there was no other aid package. , the system must absorb those losses in this year's budget.

The system's Board of Regents approved Tuesday a budget request that will seek to restore that $ 300 million in its 2021-22 budget. The budget also calls for about $ 158 million to offset other cost increases, including salaries and employee benefits.

The university system also requests new investments from the state in other programs, including $ 16.5 million to expand mental health services for students and $ 30.4 million to improve rates graduation, increase the number of degrees produced by UC, and invest in college research.

In total, the system's request to the state is $ 518.2 million in new expenditures compared to 2020-21.

Whether the state can even come close to complying with that request will not be known for months, although the state received positive news on Wednesday, when the Legislative Analyst's Office it projected that California will have a surplus of $ 26 billion next year. However, LAO warned of a deficit in subsequent years that it projects will grow to $ 17.5 billion by 2024.

Michael Cohen, system manager and chief financial officer of the Employee Retirement System California Publics warned during Thursday's meeting that it is unclear what the state's finances will look like in May and June when the budget is finalized.

"The promising news from LAO is encouraging, but even suggests that the state is in long-term financial trouble," he said. “As a university, we are likely to see funding problems over the next year. The budget you present is a good wish list. I warn everyone not to get too attached to it. "

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