What really gets in the way of college dreams? What barriers are too high, what needs are more pressing? And how do some people find their way?
What, or who, keeps them going? Why do they persevere?
Naomi Harris and Victoria Franco recently spent time in Riverside, a county where half of the population is Hispanic and fewer than one in four residents has a bachelor’s degree. (Across California, about 35 percent of people do.)
Here’s what people talked about confronting
: Imposter syndrome. Burn out. Transphobic classmates, and teachers looking the other way. Parental pressure. Hyper-focusing — and not on the right things. Exhaustion from a long day’s work. A feeling like you need to impress everyone, to be Superwoman.
They talked about their triumphs, too. Many of them had found their way back to college after dropping out years before.
Jennifer Shaw is one of them. She enrolled in community college in 2004, and again, for a semester, in 2017. She started working at Disneyland, where, she says, they were amazing at providing health care for transgender people like her.
“My dreams do come true working with Disney, surprisingly,” she says. But those weren’t enough. “I kept telling myself, life is too short and I want to do more stuff than minimum wage jobs.” She’s now at Riverside City College, studying theater and film.
More from California
In talking with people across California it quickly becomes clear how central a role the state’s community colleges play — and how many people’s lives they intersect. The 116-campus system enrolls 1.8 million students, which amounts to roughly one out of every 12 undergraduates in the nation.
Like community colleges across the country, though, California’s two-year institutions have seen a huge enrollment drop during the pandemic. More than 300,000 fewer students were enrolled in the system in fall 2021 than in fall 2019.
So who exactly is missing, and why? The fellows we work with at CalMatters profiled some of them.
They include people who left because they were working overtime in the emergency room, became disillusioned by online learning, were lured by a for-profit program’s job promises, and couldn’t juggle it all as a single parent.
“Everything that’s happened over the past two years has made it so overwhelming and exhausting,” one of the former community-college students said. “I think we’re just all spent.”