Post-pandemic, will community college students keep choosing online instruction?

Credit: Louis Freedberg

The central courtyard at Laney College is mostly deserted even as colleges reopen for in-person instruction because many students are opting for online classes.

Unlike almost all other educational institutions in California, where students are now almost all fully back in person, California’s community colleges offer a dramatic – and concerning — contrast.

On top of a drop in enrollments, the majority of students in many if not most of the state’s community colleges who have decided to return to school are preferring to study remotely, or at the least in some hybrid format.

For these students, who tend to be older, working, and often parents — or even grandparents — remote learning is the only way they’ll be able to be in college. For many of them, considerable research shows, the absence of face-to-face interaction will make it less likely that they’ll succeed.

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% of courses taught in person and 50% 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.

“In terms of success, I think it is better for students to be on campus, but, if they don’t come, then the question is what’s next,” asked Tom Renbarger, a physics professor and president of the college’s Academic Senate.

What is happening is that students who in the past had no choice but to come to campus have gotten a full dose of remote instruction – and are now eagerly embracing it as their preferred option.

Remote instruction is now the choice of a growing number of community college students, who tend to be older, working and are often parents – or even grandparents.

That’s definitely the case for Leesa Hogan, a Merritt student trying to get a child development degree and then transfer to a California State University campus.  She is one of two student members on the governing board of the Peralta district.

Forty-four years old, she is, in fact, a grandmother who has a full-time job in the Oakland school district’s attendance office. For her, taking remote classes is the only way to be in college. “If I did not have the opportunity to take classes at home, I wouldn’t have been able to take them at all,” she said.

Like Hogan, Noa Meister, a 22-year-old student at Berkeley City College, which is part of the four-college Peralta district, has also chosen online instruction.  Convenience trumps everything else, she said.

“It’s really nice to have personal autonomy over my schedule,” she said.  “It is nice to take a break when I want to, and not be at a place at a certain time, and be stuck there all day.”

Hogan, who lives in a student co-op abutting the UC Berkeley campus, says that there’s no compelling reason to go to the City College campus, housed in a downtown Berkeley building. Before the pandemic, she said, “there was always stuff happening, with clubs, events and College Days.”  Now, she said, “it is definitely deserted.”

She does go to the library from time to time.  But when she went there recently, “I was the first person there,” she said. “And I was one of three students when I left.”

But how she and other students who choose the online option will end up doing remains to be seen.  “Online coursework generally yields worse student performance than in-person coursework,” a recent Brookings Institution review concluded.

A pre-pandemic study at the California Community Colleges showed that students who took courses online were less likely to complete them, or got poorer grades, compared with students who took exactly the same classes in-person.

It is presumably better that students are in college, regardless of the mode of instruction. Yet students studying remotely need great discipline to keep going with their studies. They may not have a quiet place to study, may lack a reliable Internet connection, or may not have the personal relationships that connect them solidly to a campus culture.

Forty-six-year-old Sheressa Jackson has re-enrolled in Merritt, this time around taking classes remotely.  But she concedes that online instruction is not for everyone. “It is an adjustment,” said Jackson, a native of Oakland who is now living in the Central Valley — and works full-time. “I’ve done in-person, I’ve done online, and online takes more effort. You have to set those time blocks, especially when you are working. You have to be organized. You have to be a self-starter.”

The big question is whether this big shift to remote instruction, accelerated by a strong job market that offers more students full-time, higher-paying jobs, is a permanent one.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, the chancellor of the 116-community college system, thinks it is. “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,” he said.

The response can’t be just providing more online classes, says Jennifer Shanoski, a chemistry professor at Merritt and full-time president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, representing nearly 1,000 faculty members.

To engage students, online instruction will have to be augmented with face-to-face services, she says. Those could include assigning students a mentor who will check in with them weekly, offering online or drop-in counseling and tutoring services and more extensive child care.

Some colleges are already moving in these directions. But, said Oakley, “this is really going to force us to speed up these innovations,” especially when it comes to providing varying degrees of hybrid instruction. “The trends we are identifying are not suddenly going to reverse themselves.”

How well the community colleges, the foundation of California’s famed higher education system, respond will have far-reaching consequences for millions of students — and the state’s future.


Louis Freedberg, formerly executive director of EdSource, is a veteran reporter and analyst of California education.

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