A Tough Year for Community Colleges

Despite earlier predictions that this might be their year, many are expecting enrollment declines -- some of them devastating. Impact is greatest on minority and low-income students.

August 17, 2020
 
Metropolitan Community College

The fall 2020 semester was supposed to be a good one for community colleges. The vast majority of students live near a community college, and many surveys of students said COVID-19 might persuade them to study closer to home this fall. Students unhappy with the options at four-year colleges would find out how good community colleges are and enroll. A boost in summer enrollments at community colleges (or at least some of them) promised more of the same in the fall.

That was the theory.

With some community colleges already open (or online) for the fall, and others just a few weeks away, a very different picture has emerged. Many community colleges are boasting (yes, boasting) about enrollment losses of 5 percent as a good sign. Some community colleges have losses of up to 30 percent. Enrollments are down both at institutions that are opening up their campuses and those that are keeping most students off campus. Community colleges have large enrollments of minority and low-income students, and they appear to be particularly vulnerable.

Of course, the full picture isn't clear yet. And there are a few exceptions -- colleges that expect to make enrollment gains this year. But the overall picture is glum.

Consider the perspective of Kimberly Beatty, chancellor of Metropolitan Community College, a multicampus system in Kansas City, Mo. She expects fall enrollment to be down by 14 percent.

The college has put most classes online, keeping in-person instruction for courses where accreditation would require it (health professions, for example).

"We think many people don't have access to the technology," Beatty says. And that's despite the college giving away computers and providing hotspots.

"There's also the fear factor. People are thinking in the short term. They just need to survive," she said.

Beatty said the college has boosted marketing to such students, but "people are settling in and waiting it out." She said her staff has been asking students whether they are going elsewhere and has primarily been told they are just not going to college in the fall.

The loss of students also creates a budget crisis. Missouri governor Mike Parson has already ordered two cuts -- for a total of 18 percent of the state's contribution to the budget. That's $8.5 million. The college has frozen hiring, closed buildings and instituted many efficiencies. "We're starting to get to people," Beatty said.

In Alabama, which may see the deepest cuts in community college enrollments (classes start next week), officials currently have a 29 percent cut in registered students. Susan Price, vice chancellor of the Alabama Community College system, noted that this figure is for registered students. While some students will enroll on the last possible day, typically the college loses 10 to 12 percent of registered students, who just don't show up.

"We're going to have a very soft fall," Price said. "We're open and ready for business, but people are still very nervous about COVID."

"We're going to tighten our belts and expect the spring semester to be good," Price said.

In Virginia, Anne Kress, the new president of Northern Virginia Community College, is pleased to be facing a 5.5 percent drop in enrollment. When the college prepared its budget for the year, the enrollment loss was expected to be 15.5 percent. Classes start next week.

Classes will be primarily online, with face-to-face reserved for classes that can't meet online.

The Northern Virginia college's campus provosts have been talking with potential students and parents, telling them they will be able to transfer credits to four-year institutions, and that seems to be working, Kress said.

And the college has reworked it student affairs approach, creating a new position of remote student support specialist to help students with their problems.

In Wyoming, Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College, said his enrollment is down 12 percent with classes starting next week. Across Wyoming, the figure is 15 percent.

Laramie County and the other colleges in the state have been making gains in the last week or so. "Twenty days ago we were 18 percent down, and 30 days ago we were 22 percent down" in terms of expectations for the year, said Schaffer. Still, he said it would be "difficult" for the college to close the gap in the final week before classes start.

Schaffer said "a significant portion of our decrease across the state is in the areas of dual and concurrent enrollment." Dual enrollment is down 43 percent, and concurrent enrollment is down 82 percent. "This is a result of delayed and ever-changing plans for fall semester with our K-12 school districts," he said.

"What we have heard all summer long is that many students were waiting to see what plans the universities and the community colleges released for their fall semesters. They have been in a holding pattern," he said. "A good indication of this is our applicant activity, which has actually been strong," he said. "It is the follow-through with final admission, orientation and registration that has only recently started to really pick up."

Another possible reason for the late boom -- "we are starting to see students -- traditional and adults -- finding that a gap year may not be in their best interest," he said.

John J. Sygielski, president and CEO of HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, said via email, "At this time, informally, the 14 Pennsylvania community colleges are down anywhere from 3 percent to 30 percent for fall enrollment. We are currently 20 percent down but increasing enrollment each day. We believe that the next two weeks will see an influx of students who have decided not to return to their four-year institutions."

He continued, "Our board budgeted for an 8 percent decline in enrollment for 2020-21. We have been very creative in marketing and registration. I project we may be down between 10-15 percent when all is said and done. However, as you know, there are many variables during this unprecedented time."

Mark A. Hudgik, director of admission at Holyoke Community College, in Massachusetts, is also playing catch-up.

"We started to see the pace of applications pick up in June, after lagging by about 40 percent from March through May, but that didn't translate into enrollments," he said via email. "For June and July, applications were up nearly 15 percent but registrations continued at about 70 percent of the typical volume when compared to the same period of the previous year. Now that public schools and colleges and universities are more firm on fall plans, that enrollment trend seems to be reversed -- we saw almost twice as many students register in the week between July 31 and August 7th than we had averaged for the previous nine weeks."

Other colleges expecting declines include: Dallas College, down 5 percent; Lone Star College, down 5.6 percent; Berkshire Community College, down 9 percent; Rock Valley College, in Illinois, down 9 percent from the same period last year. The City University of New York said it did not have projections yet for its community colleges.

The Exceptions

There are a few exceptions to the rule, generally at smaller institutions. Katie Keszey of the Community College of Vermont said via email, "This week, we received 274 applications for admission, which represents a 16 percent increase over the same week last year and an 11 percent increase over last week. Enrollment of new first-time students is up 13 percent over this time last year (365 compared to 324), and of transfer applicants is up 16 percent over this time last year (194 compared to 167). Our new continuing education admissions numbers are also strong, with continuing ed enrolled new students up 60 percent (154 compared to 96). Overall new student enrollment is up 7 percent."

Northwest State Community College, in Ohio, is about 10 percent ahead of last year's total, with classes starting Wednesday.

Michael Thomson, the president, credits help from EAB for guided pathways for students, "intrusive" advising and management of the schedule.

He also said a big factor is trust.

After a summer that was almost all online, the college is now operating at 85 percent face-to-face instruction.

"We require face masks, take temperature at the door every day with a digital device, ask screening questions, sign in with a digital ID, practice social distancing and wipe common surfaces regularly," he said. "I do not think we are doing anything more than other schools, but over the summer, there has clearly been a growing trust that students are safe here. As of this writing, no faculty, staff or student has tested positive for COVID."

"In terms of more immediate factors, the most important factor is community trust," he said.

The Impact

David Baime, senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis for the American Association of Community Colleges, said the figures over all "make all the more imperative that there be more federal support so our colleges can provide services for their students."

"If it doesn't happen, the very unpleasant reality for presidents is that personnel will be furloughed or laid off," he said.

And the students being affected, he stressed, are those most hurt economically by the pandemic.

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