The article below originally appeared in the San Mateo Daily Journal and is being reprinted with permission.

Student enrollment at the San Mateo County Community College District has increased in recent semesters, a trend officials hope and expect will continue as most students take advantage of the free class offerings.

After a decade of concerning enrollment declines, the district saw about 1,250 more students enroll this spring semester than last spring, a near 10% increase in student enrollment, said Dr. Aaron McVean, vice chancellor of Educational Services and Planning, during a Board of Trustees meeting April 26.

The expectation is that similar enrollment upticks will be seen in the fall with officials planning for about 15% more students signing up for classes or about 16,159 students in classrooms, McVean said.

“If we can make this big push and get students engaged in the fall and spring of next year and carry them through we might be able to be at a similar level pre-pandemic and be in that real complete enrollment recovery and talk about even growth from there,” McVean said.

The positive projections are being buoyed by Senate Bill 893, recently approved legislation that allows the district to waive the $46 per-unit enrollment fee for students living in the county. During a previous meeting, trustees unanimously adopted a policy that waives the fees for students with an educational goal to earn a degree, certificate or transfer — about 8,462 students at a cost of more than $4.2 million.

Trustees said they supported the projections but board President Lisa Petrides asked for staff to provide a breakdown of enrollment next semester that includes explanations for why the goal was met or not.

Vice President John Pimentel also encouraged staff from either the district office or from each campus to come back to the board with a “wishlist” of marketing and outreach tools that would drive interest in targeted communities.

“This is a great status report but I’m still looking for the presidents and district staff to push the thinking to not irrational goals but to say if we want to continue to drive relevance in our communities, if we want to continue to increase acceptability for our target markets then these are some of the things we’re going to need to do to be more relevant in the high schools, more relevant in the adult schools, more relevant to our lifelong learners,” said Pimentel.

Before receiving that update, trustees also shared support for a proposed memorandum of understanding with Longfellow, a major developer looking to build a 3-million-square-foot office park in Redwood Shores. As part of the firm’s proposal, it’s offered to dedicate about $85 million to the creation of new affordable housing, about $20 million of which could be invested into staff or student housing at Cañada College.

As for to what demographic the housing should cater, Trustee Richard Holober shared his preference for building additional employee housing. The district currently owns and operates three employee housing complexes at each of the three colleges with 134 units in total. But with thousands of employees on its payroll, Holober argued the stock isn’t enough to cater to the demand.

“We know how to do it. We do it really well. The demand is there,” Holober said. We have, I believe, 250 people currently on the waitlist for a handful of openings and we have employees who give up out of frustration. They’ve been on the waiting list so long they do something else or they are not with us any longer.”

Alternatively, Pimentel and Trustee Mike Guingona said they’d prefer to build student housing. Guingona noted he raised the issue as a top concern during his campaign. Pimentel said the district could play an important role in combating the region’s housing crisis and advocated for the complex to be owned and operated by a third party.

“I think that it’s a critical issue for our region and a great opportunity for us to contribute to a broader solution of the housing affordability crisis that affects us all and doing so with as large a scale as possible,” Pimentel said.

Regardless of what’s decided, Pimentel encouraged staff to push for the housing component to be delivered on the earlier side of Longfellow’s overall project which, if approved, would be developed over a span of 20 years.

No formal decision on the MOU was made during the meeting. Whether the agreement moves forward is also contingent on the decision of the Redwood City Council. The body will need to approve the project which is still in the early phases of the review process and isn’t expected to be decided on until the summer of 2025.