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All California students pursuing higher education and career pathways should have access to an affordable education and the ability to achieve economic security. And California offers many postsecondary institutions for students to pursue their goals, including colleges, universities, community colleges, and trade schools. Yet, high costs of higher education and career training programs, along with economic hardship exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many students to cancel their education and career training plans. This is hitting students from households with low incomes the hardest. 1“Households with low incomes” are defined as households with annual income of less than $50,000. State policymakers can support students in building their education and careers by making education affordable and addressing costs of basic needs so California’s communities are home to thriving students, families, and workforces. 

The high costs of postsecondary education are a major barrier for students with low incomes to stay enrolled and complete their coursework.

Since the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year, more than 1 in 5 households with low incomes included at least one prospective student who canceled all plans to take classes from a postsecondary institution due to impacts of the pandemic (23%).2The US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey defines postsecondary institutions as colleges, universities, community colleges, trade schools, or other occupational schools. Students living in households with low incomes were more likely to cancel their education plans than California households overall (18%) and compared to households with higher incomes (14%). Students in Black and Latinx households also canceled education plans at higher proportions than all households (24% and 19%, respectively).

Bar chart: More Than 1 in 5 Households with Low Incomes Included a Student Who Canceled Postsecondary Education Plans. California Households with at Least One Adult Who Canceled All Plans to Take Classes in 2021-22.

There are various reasons why students canceled their postsecondary education plans, but financial stress is a key factor. Of those California households where at least one member canceled all plans for postsecondary education, 41% did so because they were unable to pay for educational expenses due to pandemic-related changes to income and 45% of households with low incomes canceled for the same reason.3Survey respondents were able to select various reasons why plans to take classes were canceled, including being unable to pay for educational expenses, having COVID-19 or having concerns about the virus, uncertainty about how classes or programs would change, among others. Respondents could choose more than one reason for canceling plans.

The high costs of postsecondary education are a major barrier for students with low incomes to stay enrolled and complete their coursework. At a time when California households with low incomes are much more likely to be struggling to meet basic needs, policymakers should ensure that Californians with low incomes seeking postsecondary degrees and certificates have the financial support necessary to complete their programs, provide for themselves and their households, and build their lives across the state’s diverse communities.


Support for this report was provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.

  • 1
    “Households with low incomes” are defined as households with annual income of less than $50,000.
  • 2
    The US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey defines postsecondary institutions as colleges, universities, community colleges, trade schools, or other occupational schools.
  • 3
    Survey respondents were able to select various reasons why plans to take classes were canceled, including being unable to pay for educational expenses, having COVID-19 or having concerns about the virus, uncertainty about how classes or programs would change, among others. Respondents could choose more than one reason for canceling plans.

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All California K-12 students deserve an engaging education that prepares them for college, career, and community life. However, many K-12 students are increasingly not enrolled and not attending schools. Students of color, students learning English, and students from families with low incomes have disproportionately experienced declines in enrollment and attendance. State policymakers should pursue policies that increase attendance rates and re-engage students who are not enrolled, many likely due to the health, economic, and learning challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

California students of color, students learning English, and students from families with low incomes not enrolled or attending K-12 schools are losing critical access to curriculum.

While recent California student enrollment in K-12 public schools has fallen sharply overall, declines have been especially pronounced for socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color.1Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are either eligible for free or reduced priced meals or have parents or guardians who did not graduate high school. In 2021-22, enrollment for socioeconomically disadvantaged students fell by 3% from the prior year, following a drop of more than 3% between 2019-20 and 2020-21. Enrollment dropped for students in most racial and ethnic groups in 2021-22, but these drops were larger for most racial groups who were socioeconomically disadvantaged. These drops in enrollment were double the average statewide decline for Pacific Islander (6.4%) and Filipino (6.1%) students and nearly double for Black (5.8%) students.

Even for students enrolled in K-12 schools, many lost educational opportunities because they were chronically absent.2Students who are chronically absent are those who miss school for 10% of instructional days or more in a school year. Socioeconomically disadvantaged students disproportionately experience chronic absenteeism — with varied causes including limited transportation, adverse health conditions, and housing insecurity. The pandemic exacerbated these challenges causing chronic absenteeism to soar, especially for socioeconomically disadvantaged students of color and English learners. In 2020-21, nearly one-third of socioeconomically disadvantaged American Indian/Alaska Native (32.2%) and Black students (31.9%) were chronically absent, as were more than a quarter of Pacific Islander students (27.8%), and nearly one in five Latinx students (19.2%). The chronic absenteeism rate for socioeconomically disadvantaged English learners spiked to 18.8%, approaching the statewide average of 19.4%.  

California students of color, students learning English, and students from families with low incomes not enrolled or attending K-12 schools are losing critical access to curriculum and social structures that schools, educators, and peers offer. While state policymakers weigh options to address the fiscal impacts on California school districts due to shifts in enrollment and attendance, they also hold responsibility for the educational and social well-being of students who have historically faced barriers to learning. To fulfill that responsibility, policymakers’ choices should prioritize the meaningful engagement of K-12 students and their families and help them rebuild educational opportunities.


Support for this report was provided by the Sobrato Family Foundation and the Stuart Foundation.

  • 1
    Socioeconomically disadvantaged students are either eligible for free or reduced priced meals or have parents or guardians who did not graduate high school.
  • 2
    Students who are chronically absent are those who miss school for 10% of instructional days or more in a school year.

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COVID-19 has disrupted California Community College (CCC) students’ higher education plans, causing many to reduce their course loads or pause their education altogether. The CCCs serve high percentages of students of color and students with low incomes, and drops in enrollment can further narrow educational opportunities and undermine workforce development priorities statewide. While state and federal leaders have enacted policies to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on CCCs, the path forward for community college students requires more long-term investments that address their broader educational and economic needs.1

Chart title: American Indian, Black, and Latinx California Community College Students Experienced the Largest Drops in Enrollment

The number of full-time equivalent students (FTES) at the CCCs declined steeply compared to pre-pandemic levels — nearly 12% overall from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the largest year-over-year decrease in over a decade.2 An FTES represents one student who takes a full course load during an academic year.3 The decline in FTES reflects a drop in the number of students, a reduction in student course loads, or both. While all racial and ethnic groups experienced declines, American Indian or Alaska Native students had the largest drop (23%) followed by the drop in Black students (17%)­. Latinx students fell by 12%, representing over half of the total decline. Reductions from fall 2019 to fall 2020 vary across campuses and student groups. All but six colleges saw declines and ten colleges had drops greater than 25%, and the 19-or-under and the 20-to-24 age groups had declines of approximately 10% and 15%, respectively.

Loss of income due to job losses has particularly affected community college students.

Research shows that the pandemic affected students’ decisions to cancel or delay their education plans.4 Loss of income due to job losses has particularly affected community college students.5 The added financial stress on students’ budgets has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx students, with many reporting increased food insecurity and having missed rent, mortgage, or utility payments.6 Moreover, online education challenges such as inequitable access to broadband have also made it more difficult for students to continue their enrollment.7

Policymakers can support community college students of color and those with low incomes by pursuing policies centered on robust retention, housing, food, health, access to technology, child care support, completing transfer requirements, and developing career training. State investments in community college students now will pay off as they continue building their careers, futures, and lives across the state, and ensure that a skilled workforce is available to support the California economy.


This work was made possible through the support of Lumina Fund for Policy Acceleration, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

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