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In a recession, why are the lowest-priced colleges suffering the greatest enrollment declines?

Usually, recessions lead to enrollment booms in community colleges. This one has had the opposite effect.

I’m wondering if gender is an underacknowledged factor.

By now, it’s fairly clear that school closures in the wake of COVID have forced many women out of the workforce, or to reduce to part-time status. As Jessica Grose’s piece in The New York Times put it, mothers are the shock absorbers for the economy, and they’re absorbing a lot more shock these days. When younger children are relegated to taking online classes from home, they can’t be left without adult supervision. Given the high cost and low availability of good professional childcare even before the pandemic, let alone now, parents have had to fill in the gaps.

That has disproportionately fallen on women. Some of that is a function of long-standing cultural attitudes and some of it is a function of salary differences (which, to be fair, are a second-order effect of the cultural attitudes). We already have solid information indicating that academic women’s research productivity, as measured in publications, has taken a much greater hit than men’s. It’s reasonable to imagine similar effects in other industries.

Community colleges have long had a disproportionately female student body. That’s particularly true among students over age 22. I’ve long wondered if the gender ratio among students beyond traditional age is related to salary differences: in a heterosexual couple, if he’s making $40,000 and she’s making $25,000, then it’s easier on the family to send her back to school than to send him back. The opportunity cost is lower. Among 18-year-olds, we’re closer to gender parity, but very few 18-year-olds make significant salaries.

Assuming this synopsis is substantially correct so far, then what makes this recession different from previous ones is the abrupt and catastrophic exit of women from roles outside the home. Suddenly their childcare obligations have exploded, putting everything else, including college, on the back burner. That would likely hit community colleges particularly hard, because our student bodies are more female, and older, than more elite places'. We have more mothers among our students; to the extent that mothers have been targeted, we’re collateral damage.

In a more normal recession, community colleges compete with unemployment. In this one, we’re competing with childcare. The first battle is much easier to win than the second.

I’m putting this “thinking out loud” piece out there because it’s empirically testable. If the enrollment declines are larger among women than among men, and especially so among women older than the 18-22 group, then there’s probably something to it. If not, then not.

If my speculation is substantially correct, then some of the usual tactics used to reverse enrollment declines may be less effective than usual. For mothers suddenly compelled to perform full-time childcare while working, tuition is probably less of a barrier to college than time is. There are only so many hours in the day. In this setting, college becomes just one more thing to do, and they’re exhausted. Extracurriculars that can help many students feel more connected to the institution just feel, well, extra.

I’ve seen more colleges close daycare centers than open them in the course of my career. As one president explained it to me years ago, a college has to decide where to lose money. Austerity is contagious and particularly damaging to the young.

There’s cause for hope. When K-12 schools are reliably open full-time, many women will presumably have more time both for paid work and for college. Even then, it may take years to undo the damage. Until then, though, if we keep acting like this recession is like the last few, we’ll miss the point. The critical opportunity cost now isn’t money; it’s time.

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