Community College Enrollments Down Due to Uncertainties Caused by COVID-19

September 4, 2020 by Sara Wilkerson

Community colleges saw a nearly 6% decline in enrollments this summer due to uncertainties stemming from the coronavirus outbreak, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Community colleges were not the only institutions to face enrollment losses. Public four-year, rural institutions declined more than 8%, and private non-profit rural campuses declined by almost 5%. 

Yet, as community colleges and other institutions faced losses in enrollment, public and private non-profit four-year institutions saw an increase in enrollment growth of 3% and 4% respectively. Additionally, enrollment at public and private non-profit four-year institutions in cities (6%) and the suburbs (3%) increased as well. 

“These data offer the first opportunity to grasp the full range of effects on students and institutions of the host of disruptions the nation has weathered this summer,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSCRC. 

Shapiro continued, “The equity implications for higher education in the fall are becoming more clear: Many of those most affected by the pandemic also appear to be losing access to college classes, even at community colleges and rural institutions that have traditionally served them.” 

While college enrollment numbers have yet to be determined as the new academic year starts at institutions across the country, the decline in community college enrollment falls in line with data from a July trends report released from the American Association of Community Colleges. 

According to the AACC, overall higher education fall enrollment “peaked in fall 2010 and continuously declined through fall 2018.” Yet in the same report, projections for community college enrollment predict it will begin to increase over the next decade, however enrollment numbers likely will not reach the peak of fall 2010. 

As four-year institutions cope with growing coronavirus cases and shuttering campuses for fully remote instruction, community colleges across the country are attempting to strive for the best circumstances of providing education amid dwindling college enrollment trends. 

According to the Chicago Tribune, CC administrators in Illinois are predicting that numbers for student applications for CCs will rise as four-year institutions finalize their plans. 

Likewise, college officials at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa., told The Well News they remain “optimistic” about enrollment numbers for the upcoming semester. MC3 recently announced that the college will resume classes this week mostly online for the fall 2020 semester. 

Phil Needles, vice president of Student Services at MC3, told The Well News that, “It will be interesting to see what happens as students and families respond to their current circumstances as we watch every day you see more and more it is happening at four-year institutions where they’re having to make changes and shifts and closures.” 

“We [MC3] consciously know that we’re a quality, stable, accessible college experience opportunity for all students and all families,” Needles continued. 

In an interview with The Well News, Dr. Victoria Bastecki-Perez, MC3’s president, outlined the numerous supportive efforts the institution has taken since March. 

Besides being fully operational with online classes in a span of two weeks last spring semester, MC3 has migrated its tutoring services to an online format available 24/7 for students who may not be accustomed to a virtual learning environment. As a result of the success of its online tutoring program, the college was recognized as a 2020 Blackboard Catalyst Winner in June. 

Additionally, the college became the first community college in the nation to partner with Talkspace, an online therapy service providing academic and life counseling for its students. MC3 students are provided with text, voice, and video services with Talkspace at no additional cost. 

“We know our community college students are juggling not only their academics, but life, which could include caring for others, whether its parents, children or loved ones or friends. They could be working, they could now be unemployed. And they may have a lot of challenges and so we wanted to make sure we provided again a scaled and good solution [for students],” said Bastecki-Perez about the MC3-Talkspace partnership. 

As part of its effort to aid students’ financial needs, MC3 instituted a freeze on its tuition rates for the fourth year in a row and raised over $100K for its emergency student fund last spring. 

As for faculty, MC3 has provided online training for its faculty and staff to become accustomed to a new virtual learning environment. 

The need to give support not only students to but faculty as well is not lost on Dr. Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping community colleges become leaders in their communities. 

In speaking on this matter, Stout said, “Colleges need to invest in new ways in [supporting] faculty development. The delivery of holistic support for students remains a priority.” 

Stout continued in her statement by saying, “Most concerning is the need to organize all that we do to keep students on a path toward attainment of some type of degree or credential that has labor market value.” 

Stout put the consequences of colleges not providing support to students and faculty into perspective by stating, “The pandemic, if we are unable to find students we lost and keep students we serve, and open up new access points for new students, will result in a lost generation of learners that will hurt the economic and civic fabrics of the communities our colleges serve.” 

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