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Two Community Colleges in the South Are Bringing Students Back


After two years of COVID-19, community college enrollment was in triage. But fall 2022 saw those losses slow. Some institutions were even able to reverse their downward trajectory.

Indian River State College (IRSC) in Fort Pierce, FL, and Coahoma Community College (CCC) in Clarksdale, MS, saw their efforts to rebuild their student populations pay off. At CCC, a Historically Black College and University, fall 2022 enrollment jumped 22.2%, the highest enrollment gains of any community college in the state. IRSC’s fall 2022 enrollment increased by 8.9%, with its incoming cohort breaking their ten-year average enrollment by more than 1,000 students.

Dr. Timothy Moore, president of Indian River State College.Dr. Timothy Moore, president of Indian River State College.The presidents of these institutions said these increases are testament to tireless and intentional effort from faculty, staff, and leadership. Through carefully targeted programs and partnerships that remove barriers to educational access and success, these leaders hope their latest numbers portend future growth.

“College attendance across the nation has taken a precipitous decline over the last several years,” said IRSC President Dr. Timothy Moore. “It was most pronounced from 2016 to 2020, where we dropped about 25% of our enrollment. It was a dangerous decay, and Covid pushed it hard nose downward.”

When he became president of IRSC in late 2020, Moore brought business acumen to his new role. He refers to potential students as “customers,” adding that higher education is a “crowded” place with a “plethora of choices and online programs, and we have to compete for customer attention and sell them on the value proposition.”

Moore made several leadership changes after his arrival, bringing in new chief information officer Dr. Timothy Marshall from Dallas College, where their local promise program was giving underrepresented minorities greater access to higher education.

Hoping to attract even more diverse students to IRSC, a Hispanic-serving institution, Moore launched the IRSC Promise Program in 2022. Available to any high school student who graduated from one of their 14 area high schools, public or public charter, IRSC waives the tuition of anyone who enrolls full time.

The mission was a success. Minority students make up 80% of the Promise Program’s 2022 cohort, and 71% of those identify as Latinx. The program reached first-time college goers as well, and 56% of the 2022 promise cohort identify as first-generation.

The funding for the program came from a surprise source. In December 2020, philanthropist MacKenzie Scott gave the college its largest ever donation: a $45 million unrestricted gift. Moore directed a large portion of that funding into IRSC’s foundation.

With its growth, and with more gifts from generous donors, Moore said he has plans to expand the Promise Program. IRSC’s nearby high schools graduate roughly 6,500 students each year, and Moore’s aim is to pull at least 34% of those graduates to his institution. IRSC’s 2023 cohort will be offered to the area’s homeschooled students as well.

Dr. Valmadge Towner, president of Coahoma Community College.Dr. Valmadge Towner, president of Coahoma Community College.But in nearby Mississippi, CCC President Dr. Valmadge Towner can’t rely on his local high schools to create his student pipeline. Although he and his leadership team meet with every superintendent and college counselor for the 18 high schools in their five-county service area, the nearby towns are small and rural. Only about 1,000 students graduate there each year, and Towner said he can expect about 25% of those to enroll at CCC.

“We want to have at least 2,000 students every semester,” said Towner. “If you do that math, we can’t depend on our high schools [for enrollment]. A lot of our focus must be geared towards adult learners.”

CCC has partnered for the first time this year with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), an organization which helps connect non-traditional students with expertise and resources to navigate the transition from college to employment. Towner said it is crucial to remove as many barriers as possible to attract and keep adult learners, so CCC connects students with emergency funds as needed, like gas and meal vouchers.

Towner has been working to increase CCC’s enrollment since he became president over a decade ago. He developed a robust recruitment and retention team and had long conversations with all of his faculty and staff to impress upon them a “healthy anxiety” about their enrollment numbers, he said. He met with local mayors and sent teams to each county to build an enthusiasm for learning.

“This enrollment isn’t an admissions or recruitment issue, it’s everyone’s concern,” said Towner.

Eventually, Towner said he discovered that CCC did not have an enrollment problem as much as a retention problem. After joining Achieving the Dream, a network of over 300 community colleges working to equitize higher education, Towner said his leadership, faculty and staff have had access to new pedagogies and techniques that keep students on track to completion.

The other important change Towner made to address retention was the use of American Rescue Plan funding to support students’ mental health. Covid, Towner said, took a brutal toll on his community. Moving online was difficult, and the isolation coupled brutally with grief as nearly everyone at CCC lost countless family and friends to the virus.

Thanks to federal dollars, the college now has employed an early alert system to identify students in crisis. Towner hired counselors, including one who lives with the students in their dorm. Actress Taraji P Henson brought her mental health nonprofit to the campus to offer free group therapy.

“We deliberately target students who are currently enrolled, and we try to ensure they’re doing well now, because success breeds confidence. When people have confidence, they’re likely to continue,” said Towner. “I tell perspective students all the time, any institution will provide you with skills, training, and knowledge—but we provide confidence.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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