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By the numbers: How the pandemic hit SF college enrollment, in 6 charts

A person walks down a sidewalk toward a large glass-fronted building.
Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

National and state trends show enrollment at local colleges is way down—and San Francisco is no exception.

Colleges and universities nationwide saw a more than 5% drop in enrollment in higher education over the last two years. California schools saw an even bigger drop of 10% since 2019. 

Data compiled by The San Francisco Standard found that those same enrollment trends are affecting San Francisco’s schools—some at much higher rates than the state or national average. 

Crunching the Numbers

Here is how local higher education schools stand up against the national trends:

Since 2019, enrollment has dropped by 11,627 students, or 11.7%, among five of the top-enrolled schools in the city—including San Francisco State, City College of San Francisco, University of San Francisco, University of California San Francisco and the Academy of Art University.

The drop was most severe between the 2019 and 2020 academic years. Over that period, all five institutions reported an average enrollment dip of 7.5%—all told, the schools lost nearly 8,000 students over the course of a single year. 

Enrollment had been steadily rising at some schools and already dropping at others before the major pandemic-related drop-off in 2020. New numbers from 2021 indicate some local schools are already starting their recovery. However, those same five schools still reported declining enrollment, but by just 5% on average.

City College accounts for the bulk of local declines. The school lost nearly 10,000 students between 2017 and 2021. It appears Covid was a decisive factor: During the pandemic, enrollment dropped more than 28%, double the drop seen at community colleges nationwide.

At SF State, the numbers aren’t as jarring. The school saw a more than 6% decline in its enrollment between 2019 and 2020. But those numbers began to recover in 2021, when the school enrolled just 2% fewer students than normal, accounting for a nearly 8% drop overall during the pandemic. Now, Katie Lynch, SF State’s senior associate vice president for enrollment management, said applications for fall 2022 are up from 2021 numbers. 

University of San Francisco, a local Catholic college, lost around 5% of its students during the pandemic. Its enrollment had been declining since 2017, with 1,000 fewer students now attending the Jesuit university. 

At UCSF, which only offers graduate degrees, enrollment stayed relatively steady throughout the pandemic. UCSF spokesperson Laura Kurtzman said while enrollment at each of the graduate university’s schools can fluctuate year to year—often based on research schedules—UCSF did not see any major drops in enrollment during the pandemic.

Also affecting local enrollment numbers is the fact that many international students faced logistical challenges with visas or even travel restrictions during the pandemic, keeping them from attending school in the United States and San Francisco. 
California—the No. 1 state for international students—saw a 17% decrease in international student enrollment in fall 2020, which accounted for a $4.8 billion loss in consumer spending for the state, according to an analysis from the U.S. State Department and the Institute of International Education.