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Community College Enrollment Is Down 10%. Here’s How Schools Hope to Help Students Return

Enrollment at community colleges is down. The data is clear, says Dr. Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that enrollment in fall 2020 was down 10.6% from fall 2019 for full-time students and 9.9% for part-time students. The biggest declines were among African American males at 19.2% and Native American males at 20.1%.

“Students of color, in particular Black and Brown students, didn’t re-enroll,” says Dr. Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher, director of the Office of Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois and executive director of the Council for the Study of Community Colleges.

“There’s an access issue,” says Zamani-Gallaher. “The pandemic has lifted the veil and has exacerbated what has already been some differentials, particularly in terms of racial inequities.”

The COVID-19 effect

In previous economic downturns, by example 2008–09, community college enrollment went up, notes Zamani-Gallaher. Even people who already had associate’s or bachelor’s degrees enrolled.

Dr. Eboni M. Zamani-GallaherDr. Eboni M. Zamani-Gallaher

“They were utilizing community colleges to retool and to try to have a more competitive skill set to meet local industry needs and to rebound in terms of employability,” says Zamani-Gallaher.

Heading into the fall 2020 semester, the thought was that numbers would hold steady, but that didn’t prove to be the case. A significant obstacle has been that some students could not adapt to distance learning. Zamani-Gallaher says many first-time students decided to wait until face-to-face classes resume. Others who were enrolled when higher education moved to online learning in the spring of 2020 either did not have access to the necessary technology or they found online learning too difficult.

Parham says 29% of community college students are first-generation students who “are looking at attending college without having that college-going culture in their backgrounds,” she says. “To navigate the process of going to college in a totally remote format could be challenging.”

Sixty-two percent of full-time students and 72% of part-time students work in addition to attending college. The age of the average community college student is 28, and many have children who are also doing online schooling due to the pandemic.

Dr. Bill Pink, president of Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in Michigan, says his student population has declined in line with national numbers. Students are informing the college that they are sitting out, either because they are waiting for face-to-face instruction to return or they must work extra hours due to economic necessity.

“Some students who were with us virtually or online in the fall are sitting out this winter because the online modality just wasn’t a good fit,” Pink says. “Others say that modality fits their lifestyle and … [they] are adapting. The lesson we’re being reminded of is it’s important for us to make sure that we’re responsive in both modalities.”

Serving student need

Many community college students deal with food insecurity and housing insecurity while trying to pursue higher education. Pink says GRCC has provided students with groceries and toiletries.

To accommodate students’ need for technology, Pink says GRCC purchased laptops to loan to students and established mobile labs around campus. The college also purchased and distributed over 300 mobile hotspots.

GRCC also took steps to increase its WiFi signal, so that it reaches campus parking lots and parking garages. Students could drive onto campus and get the signal.

“We also partnered with Kent District Libraries of 20-plus libraries across the county to not only assist in helping them blast their signal out into their parking lots but also to put out our GRCC connection as well,” Pink says. “Our students, no matter where they are in the county, can go to one of those libraries and, if the library is open, can go inside or they can access our internet from the parking lot.”

Dr. Kenya Ayers-PalmoreDr. Kenya Ayers-Palmore

Dr. Kenya Ayers-Palmore, president of Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus in Texas, says enrollment for the college’s summer 2020 semester was up by 2.9%, but spring 2021 is down about 9% from spring 2020. TCC is a network of six community colleges (five campuses and one online) that function in a unified manner.

In addition to her presidency, Ayers-Palmore leads the student experience principle across the college. As she was in her office examining onboarding trends, the pandemic hit and the chancellor asked her to work strategically alongside the enrollment office.

TCC had a call center that reached out to students who have previously enrolled or who had planned to enroll but didn’t. TCC’s call center was staffed by people from within the institution, utilizing people from many departments across the college, including faculty and advisors.

“We segmented our targeted approach to ask students what was going on with them,” says Ayers-Palmore. “A lot of fear. A lot of uncertainty in their homes. That translated to an unwillingness to make the commitment for education.

“Touching base with students is not just trying to solidify enrollment,” she adds. “We’ve inculcated a culture of care and we’re growing in that regard as an institution.”

TCC has aligned with local resources, including food banks and nonprofits, that can assist students.

Zamani-Gallaher says she and other researchers who study community colleges are aware of how the pandemic has increased equity gaps and are trying to find nuanced solutions, such as growing digital literacy. Affordability remains a key issue. A strategy for increasing enrollment would be targeting displaced workers and providing scholarships.

Two major initiatives have been introduced by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The first is Futures for Frontliners, which provides a tuition-free pathway to college or a technical certificate program for essential workers who don’t have a college degree. This includes not only staffers at hospitals and nursing homes, but also grocery store workers, manufacturing jobs, public safety workers, sanitation workers and delivery people. Pink says over 3,000 people deemed eligible by the state contacted GRCC and approximately 1,700 enrolled for the current semester.

The Michigan Reconnect Grant is for people aged 25 or older with no college or some college who haven’t completed a degree. They can apply for this tuition-free program. The application process went online Feb. 1, and Pink expects to see some of those students this summer.

Additionally, the Grand Rapids Promise Zone is a last-dollar scholarship established for high school students who graduate from schools in the district to pay for an associate degree or certificate program.

“We believe those three entities not only will give students an opportunity to access us, but we also believe they’re going to be a big key to helping get our folks back to work and dig out of this pandemic,” says Pink.

AACC is hosting a virtual listening tour of community college presidents from across the country to hear about their challenges and some of the remedies they’ve put in place. Sharing that information enables stakeholders to effectively speak with local, state and national elected officials to advocate for sufficient funds to address the current situation, says Parham.

Another strategy, says Zamani-Gallaher, is increasing dual enrollment, which allows students to concurrently attend two institutions — generally high school and community college. She suggests figuring out additional ways of providing accelerated pathways and bolstering partnerships with high schools.

Dr. Bill PinkDr. Bill Pink

Ayers-Palmore says part of TCC’s strategy for restoring enrollment is closely aligning with high school partners. Texas requires a placement test for students to enroll, so TCC waived some testing fees for the fall and spring semesters.

“As a community college, we … can develop short-term certificates that have labor market value, and we have begun doing that,” says Ayers-Palmore. “We’ve opened a corporate arm of the institution during the pandemic, so we can do more corporate development and training and meet the needs of our corporate and business partners.

“I see community colleges at the very heart and center of economic recovery,” she adds. “We do that in partnership with the entities (such as) businesses, municipalities, nonprofits, community groups, churches, four-year institutions and K–12 partners.”

Ayers-Palmore says colleges must also develop the support services that students need so they feel motivated to enroll. Zamani-Gallaher concurs, noting the importance of culturally relevant high-touch practices.

“The role of the community college is to be relevant and responsive,” Pink says. “This college and colleges like ours are the ones who will help in getting folks in this community back to work and, in some cases, back to their higher education path.”

This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2021 edition of Diverse. Read it here.

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