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Op-Ed: As Pandemic Drives Local College Enrollments Down, SB's Housing Crunch May Ease

By Lanny Ebenstein

Is Santa Barbara’s housing crisis over, or at least significantly reduced? This is a reasonable question to ask in the wake of COVID-19. 

One of the defining aspects of the south coast is its large number of college students: Combined enrollment at UCSB and SBCC has been in the range of 40,000 to 43,000 students in recent years -- more than one fifth of the south coast population. For this reason, what happens at these two institutions concerning enrollment has great repercussions for the larger community. 

Santa Barbara City College is taking a big hit with respect to enrollment this academic year. In the fall semester that just started, enrollment is down approximately 1,500 students, two-thirds of whom are out-of-state or international.

UCSB does not start fall quarter until the end of the month, so its fall enrollment will not be known until then; however, it is likely its enrollment will also be 1,000 or so students fewer in 2020-21 than was projected before COVID-19.  

Enrollment at SBCC and UCSB are falling for a number of reasons, including uncertainty as a result of COVID-19 leading students to stay at home, on-line rather than in-classroom instruction, economic and financial circumstances, and political turmoil (which especially affects international students).

In addition, SBCC is influenced by other community colleges in the state enacting “Promise” programs that pay for in-district student tuition, which results in fewer students from outside of the area attending SBCC.  

Irrespective of the enrollment decline, there also will be thousands of students who will not reside in the south coast this year, but participate in on-line instruction from their homes; it is likely that enrollment will continue to decline in future years, particularly at SBCC. It is probable that total college student enrollment in the south coast will decline by about 4,000 students between now and the 2023-24 school year.  

This means a great deal of housing that will open up in the community, particularly in Santa Barbara and Isla Vista.

The decline in student enrollment currently is camouflaged with respect to its influence on the local housing market because UCSB is not providing dorm housing for about 5,000 undergraduates this quarter. In addition, it is to be hoped that developer/philanthropist Ed St George will move forward with plans to expand Beach City adjacent to SBCC by approximately 500 students in the near future. 

As a result of changing local student enrollment at SBCC and UCSB precipitated largely by COVID-19, the lower end of the housing market should ease up in the next several years, especially in Isla Vista, where many SBCC students have resided, and the City of Santa Barbara.

Malum quidem nullum esse sine aliquo bono.


Lanny Ebenstein is president of the California Center for Public Policy and a past member of the Santa Barbara Board of Education.

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