'A Lost Generation:’ Community Colleges Report Record Enrollment Declines

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New data shows total enrollment decreased by more than 10% since last fall, with the most precipitous drop seen with first-year students.

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold and the economy began to falter, past experiences at community colleges suggested they would see a boom period as out-of-work people looked for ways to shift into new careers. 

But presidents and administrators at those schools suspected this recession wouldn’t unfold that way, said Karen A. Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit that seeks to improve student access to higher education.

They were right.

Instead, enrollment at community colleges has decreased by more than 10% since last fall—a drop of roughly 544,000 students, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse. Among all public colleges and universities, enrollment dropped by 3.6%, driven largely by the decline at two-year institutions.

“Community college enrollment in the past has been counter-cyclical, meaning if there was an economic recession, you’d see more citizens flock to their local community college for job upskilling and retraining,” Stout said. “But I think many of us knew that this economic downturn was much different than any other that we’ve experienced. Many of us did not expect to see a large jump in community college enrollment. In fact, many of us were very worried that exactly what is happening, would happen.”

There are myriad reasons for the enrollment decline, Stout said, including the demographic characteristics of traditional community college students. Many come from low-income backgrounds, are first-generation learners, and attend school while juggling work and dependent care. 

“Those students are already coming into our colleges with unique challenges, so the pandemic becomes another thing they’re juggling within an already very busy life,” Stout said. “The same groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic are disproportionately leaving our community college campuses. Essentially, what we’ve learned from Covid is that our very vulnerable students are even more vulnerable than we thought.”

The challenges are particularly acute for first-time college students. The number of new students enrolling in public two-year institutions is down by 21% compared to last year, while enrollment for continuing students—those who were already pursuing higher education in the spring—stayed relatively flat, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. That suggests that community colleges have fared well with retention efforts but have struggled to reach prospective students who opted intentionally to put off further education until the pandemic is under control, Stout said.

“The drop in new student enrollment has been almost off a cliff, meaning the sector, as a whole, is not attracting new students,” she said. “That’s a lost generation, not just of the worker pipeline, but of talent. I think many of our community colleges are trying to figure out how to find the new students that did not get to their campuses—because they’re not at a different college. They’re just somewhere in the community.”

Community colleges often prioritize engagement with students to offer supportive services that can increase academic success, but those programs have taken on new importance during the pandemic, said Karen Norton, executive director of integrated marketing and communications for Bunker Hill Community College, a multi-campus school in the Boston area that saw a 15% drop in fall enrollment this year. 

“We are continuing with our outreach to our students and have just really tried to make alternative arrangements to support them every chance we could,” she said.

For example, the school runs its own food pantry for students who deal with food insecurity, but the facility had to stop allowing visitors to comply with public health guidelines at the height of the pandemic. To compensate, the college provided grocery-store gift cards and partnered with outside organizations to deliver food directly to students in need. 

Officials also reached out to students—new and continuing—who had dropped out or failed to register for classes to see what they could do to help, said Jim Canniff, Bunker Hill’s provost. Respondents fell broadly into three groups: Students who had problems with child care, people who had conflicts with family or employment, and those who were hesitant about remote or online learning. The school is continuing to ramp up its marketing efforts ahead of the spring semester, but enrollment numbers continue to lag, and the effects of the pandemic could linger until next fall.

“We’ve got those (marketing and outreach) mechanisms in place, so I think it could pay off for us, but it’s a very uncertain environment,” he said. “The spring semester is more of a question mark, but what will happen in the fall of 2021 is going to be influenced largely by how these vaccines work and how comfortable people feel about coming back to college.”

Outreach has also been key for Odessa College, a 10,000-student school located in west Texas, which has been an enrollment brightspot among community colleges. 

Officials there have always prioritized communication with students, but that messaging took on new importance during the pandemic, said Gregory Williams, the school’s president.

“We’re always doing outreach. We’re really good at social media, we’re communicating all the time—letting our students know what’s going on, how we’re going to support them,” he said. “We told them, ‘We’re not going away. We’re going to serve you one way or another, and we’re going to figure out how to do it.’”

Some things, like transitioning to virtual learning, were relatively easy for the school, which had already utilized an online platform for most students and teachers. Odessa College also operates on an eight-week course system rather than a 16-week semester, which Wiliams said offers greater flexibility to students in a time of uncertainty. As a result, the college’s enrollment increased by roughly 2% this fall.

“Most of our students have the same challenges as other community college students,” he said. “We ask what we can do to help be successful. We beat the bushes with social media and advertising, and we let students know that we don’t want to use the pandemic as a reason for you to fall behind.”

But the school’s results are in the minority, and declining enrollment is the prevailing trend nationwide. Stout said the sector is likely to see a turnaround as the pandemic subsides— but it will probably do so unevenly, with individual schools and regions recovering on different time frames and to differing degrees.

“You don’t recover from this overnight, and a lot depends on the communities and how quickly they rebound economically. It could vary,” she said. “You might see some colleges that rebound in two years, while others could take five.”

And that rebound will require new programs and new investment, a steep challenge in an era of ever-decreasing funding for higher education. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges fell more than $6.6 billion from 2008 to 2018. With states and municipalities facing budget shortfalls, particularly next year, due to decreased revenue during the pandemic, that trend seems likely to continue. But Stout remains hopeful. There’s room for transformation in this process, she said, even with the multiple challenges.

“I want to be optimistic and say that our community colleges are going to be adopting what I call a new ‘bold access agenda,’” she said. “They’ll reach deeply, in new and different ways, to find those disconnected learners. They’re going to work as hard as they can to reach those students and build those on-ramps in new and creative ways. Because that’s what has to happen.”

Kate Queram is a staff correspondent at Route Fifty.

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