Student enrollment at CSU Channel Islands isn't rebounding. Millions of dollars are at stake

In the 17 years after the CSU Channel Islands campus opened near Camarillo, enrollment headed in one direction: up.

By the fall of 2018, the state's second-youngest public university had grown to more than 7,000 students, almost 6,500 more than when it opened in 2002 and well on the way to its target of 15,000.

But momentum was shifting. Enrollment plateaued in 2019. In 2020, it began to plummet, and by the start of the 2022-2023 school year, the university was 1,500 students smaller than it had been three years earlier.

That's a decline of 20.4% from fall 2019 to fall 2022, the biggest enrollment decline among the 23 California State University campuses, according to the CSU system's online enrollment dashboard. CSUCI's drop of 12.3% from 2021 to 2022 was the second-worst in the system that year, behind only CSU Bakersfield, which declined by 12.8%.

Its enrollment struggles mean the university is likely to lose nearly $8 million in state funding over the next few years, CSUCI President Richard Yao said.

Enrollment in the CSU system as a whole has dropped, too, but by a much smaller margin, down about 5% from 2019 to 2022, in line with a nationwide trend in higher education. Unlike the other CSU campuses and most universities nationwide, CSUCI is early in its life cycle and is expected to grow every year.

Relief does not appear to be on the horizon. According to data provided by CSUCI, 1,683 incoming freshmen and transfer students have told the university they plan to enroll for fall 2023 semester, down 11.3% from a year ago, and about 40% below the anticipated new enrollment for fall 2019. Final enrollment figures won't be known until the fall semester begins.

CSUCI is one of seven CSU campuses — and the only one in Southern California — that are more than 10% below their state enrollment targets. The CSU Board of Trustees is planning to "permanently reallocate" at least 5% of the funding for those seven campuses to others that are meeting their enrollment targets, according to a presentation at a January board meeting.

At CSUCI, that will mean a loss of about $2.6 million per year in funding for three school years, beginning in 2024-25, Yao said. CSUCI's operating budget is around $140 million per year.

Yao does not expect CSUCI to hit its enrollment targets and escape the budget axe. He sees a number of factors driving the university's shrinking student population, many of them universal but some of them specific to CSUCI. He thinks the university can do a better job of making itself a campus of choice for young people growing up in Ventura County.

"It's clear to me that there are a lot of internal factors that we need to address," he said. "On the admission side, we have some work to do. We need to do a better job connecting with our community at a much deeper level."

The university's official target is still 15,000 students, but there's no timetable for that, and Yao said it's something that might be revisited.

"I think it's time we take a step back and re-evaluate what our long-term goals are," he said. "I'm a firm believer in growth, and we want to serve as many students as we can. ... I want to grow, but I want to grow in a way that's very intentional and very grounded in our region, and very data-informed."

Why CSUCI students are leaving

There were plenty of times when Marcus Peinado, 24, thought about leaving CSUCI. The liberal studies major transferred to the school in fall 2020 after finishing community college, but after years of school, he was on the verge of burnout.

"I could be a swim instructor, work in an after-school program," he recalled thinking. "Something that pays me decently."

After not being rehired as a dorm resident assistant in fall of 2022, Peinado moved back home to Santa Maria and commuted to CSUCI one day a week for classes. With the new commute, more than 100 miles each way, he said he got closer than ever to leaving.

"Do I stay and be miserable? Or do I quit and have to come back years later and struggle even more?" he thought.

Nikita Sarmiento, 25, also transferred into CSUCI from a community college. She said she found it "a great campus" with "a lot to offer," but it still hasn't been easy. Classes she needs have been canceled if there weren't enough students enrolled. Parking on campus is expensive. It's also hard to get research experience in her field, clinical psychology.

And then there is the campus culture, which Sarmiento thinks hasn't recovered from the pandemic and the move to online classes in 2020 and 2021.

Her husband was a CSUCI student five years ago, and she said his experience was so different that "it's almost like we're talking about two different schools."

"Students choose to leave because there isn't a sense of community or belonging," Sarmiento said. "We just don't have enough people."

CSUCI is fairly remote — the campus is about 5 miles outside of Camarillo, which isn't exactly a bustling college town itself — and some students say it can be a lonely place, especially on evenings and weekends.

"It's a commuter school, so it's either very full or very empty," said Mirka Vargas, a second-year CSUCI student from Santa Paula.

Peinado said he enjoyed "the smallness of the school," but said CSUCI would attract more students if it had entertainment options on or near the campus.

"If you want to have a good time, you have to go to Camarillo, Ventura, Oxnard, Thousand Oaks," he said.

CSU Channel Islands fighting enrollment drop on 3 fronts

Peinado did make it across the finish line, wrapping up his bachelor's degree this year, but other students have not.

Dropouts are one of three ways CSUCI has lost students in the last few years — the others being fewer new freshmen and transfers.

CSUCI and other CSU campuses are fighting on all three fronts. First, demographic changes mean there are fewer graduating high schoolers and fewer college-aged young adults than there were a decade ago. That's an even bigger factor in Ventura County than in other parts of Southern California, because the region's overall population and public school enrollment have been in decline for years.

Second, community college enrollment in California dropped even faster during the pandemic than enrollment at four-year colleges or high schools. The Ventura County Community College District has not been spared, and that shrank CSUCI's biggest pipeline for transfer students.

The entire CSU system is working to maintain its enrollment by keeping current students in college and on track to graduate, with a program called Graduation Initiative 2025. At CSUCI, the initiative includes $586,000 in funding for faculty and administrative positions and other programs to keep students in school.

The economy has been working against college enrollment, too. When unemployment is low, as it has been for the past year and a half, college-aged people are more likely to opt for a full-time job over higher education.

"Once you start making a full-time wage, it's really hard to give that up," said CSUCI Vice Provost Jessica Lavariega Monforti.

Even before the pandemic, the national conversation around the value of higher education relative to its cost was changing, and high school graduates are becoming less likely to attend college. In 2021, 62% of high school graduates ages 18-24 were in college, down from a high of 70% in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We're really trying to communicate to students that a CSU education is affordable," said April Grommo, the assistant vice chancellor of strategic enrollment for the CSU system.

At CSUCI, tuition and fees are about $6,800 a year, compared to about $15,000 at UC Santa Barbara and just under $50,000 at California Lutheran University. About 56% of CSU graduates finish with no student debt, Grommo said.

CSUCI planning for growth

CSUCI is still planning for growth, with new academic programs coming on line every year. The CSU Board of Trustees has approved six new degree programs for 2024-25, including an undergraduate major in Black and Africana studies and graduate programs in business analytics, psychology and educational leadership. Another 11 programs are scheduled to debut between 2025 and 2027, including undergraduate degrees in cinema and creative media arts, data science, cybersecurity, statistics, and Native American indigenous studies.

"We're in a bit of tension between enrollment decline and wanting to simultaneously grow new academic programs," Yao said.

But, he added, offering programs that potential students want is one of the best ways to attract new students. To that end, Yao said CSUCI has set aside $10 million of the $15 million donated to the university in 2021 by billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott for development of new academic programs.

Even if CSUCI gets back on track toward enrollment growth, it will never be a large university. At its current size, with about 5,600 students, it is the smallest of the 22 full-service CSU campuses, bigger only than CSU Maritime Academy, a specialized campus in Vallejo. Even at its goal of 15,000 students, it would be smaller than most CSU campuses, and less than half the size of the largest ones in Fullerton, Long Beach, San Diego and Northridge.

Smallness has its charms. Marianne McGrath, the chair of the university's art department, said she was able to greet almost every one of the department's 70 or so graduates by name at last month's commencement.

"There were only three or four students I didn't know," she said. "That's something I couldn't do if our campus was twice the size. We're a public institution, but we feel a lot more like a smaller liberal arts campus in the way the faculty get to know the students."

That was always the vision for CSUCI, according to one of the people most responsible for establishing the university. Jack O'Connell grew up in Oxnard, and in 1997 he was a California state senator representing Ventura County and other Central Coast communities when he wrote the bill that transferred the Camarillo State Hospital property to the CSU system. In 1998, he wrote another bill establishing and funding CSUCI on that property.

"It's a limited footprint, so it's not going to be a large, sprawling campus," said O'Connell, who went on to become California's superintendent of public instruction and is now a partner at a Sacramento-based consulting firm called Capitol Advisors. "It's an opportunity for a more personalized educational experience."

O'Connell said he's happy with how CSUCI has grown and isn't worried about its recent enrollment decline. The campus has a good reputation statewide, he said, and these days hardly anybody asks whether a bridge or ferry is necessary to get there from the mainland.

"I'm very proud of the growth and development of the campus," he said. "That school is needed today more than ever. When we got it, 20 years ago, Ventura County was the largest county without a four-year public institution, and higher education for a lot of people wasn't an option, and now it is."

To Yao, the small size and bucolic setting, nestled between the farms of the Oxnard Plain and the Santa Monica Mountains, are both a blessing and a challenge.

"It's gorgeous here, and it's very much a blessing when people get to our campus and see the beauty of it, the sense of place and the mindfulness that accompanies it, but for some students, that might not be the best fit," he said. "For students who want a very large university experience, where there's a robust Division 1 athletic program, who want that stereotypical college experience, this is not the place, but for the right kind of students, this is the perfect place for them."

Students who do find a home at CSUCI are often those who have traditionally been overlooked by other universities, Yao said. The majority of CSUCI students are Latino, most are eligible for Pell Grants to pay for their educations, and 60% would be the first in their families to graduate from college.

"That's the heart and soul of Channel Islands," Yao said. "I tell our students, 'I want you to bring your authentic and genuine selves to our campus.'"

If CSUCI is to reverse its enrollment decline and become the university its founders envisioned, it will need to attract thousands more of those authentic and genuine selves.

"Public institutions of higher learning have not had to be proactive in recruiting students. You built a university, and people would come," said Lavariega Monforti, CSUCI's vice provost. "Our institutions today need to be much more ready to meet the challenges our students are facing. ... The universities that survive will be the ones that make those changes."

Tony Biasotti is an investigative and watchdog reporter for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at This story was made possible by a grant from the Ventura County Community Foundation's Fund to Support Local Journalism.

Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star in partnership with Report for America. Reach him at or 805-437-0236 and follow him on Twitter @isaiahmurtaugh and @vcsschools. You can support this work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America.

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: CSUCI enrollment drop biggest of California State Universities