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Enrollment at community colleges continued its downward slide this semester, according to the latest report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Enrollment fell by 9.5 percent since last spring, replicating registration data from fall 2020 and representing the steepest declines in the higher ed sector since the pandemic began.
The decline follows a 13 percent drop in freshman enrollment last fall, according to an earlier report by the research center.
Worried community college leaders are already working on plans to slow this trend and boost enrollment in fall 2021. The colleges are getting creative and dangling incentives to attract high school graduates whose college plans were sidelined by the pandemic.
Loaning out free technology, such as laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi hotspots, is the most common financial perk, said Larisa Hussak, director of the Community College Executive Forum for EAB, an enrollment consulting firm.
For example, Little Big Horn College, a tribal community college and land-grant institution in Montana, plans to provide laptops or tablets -- the devices come with a code to access free textbook materials -- as gifts to students who completed an enrollment checklist, including filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. The college also started offering full tuition scholarships for all students last fall, a policy that will continue through summer and fall 2021.
Hussak has noticed more community colleges advertising scholarships and free summer courses. She pointed to Northern Virginia Community College’s Jumpstart program, which started last summer and will continue this year. It allows graduating high school seniors from the college’s dual-enrollment program to take two free summer courses.
“We understood when the pandemic hit that we had to mobilize quickly to lessen the impact of cancellations and interruptions to education,” Sheri Robertson, interim chief academic officer at NVCC, said in a statement. “We wanted to encourage students to continue their education by providing high-quality online classes that were accessible to people at all income levels.”
Other institutions followed suit this year. Northeast Mississippi Community College is allowing all students who meet general enrollment requirements, including dual-enrollment students, to take three to 12 credit of classes during the first and second summer terms for free. The enrolled students will also get $550 for living expenses, according to a press release on the college's website.
While higher education enrollment fell across all regions of the country, a national average of 4.5 percent, Mississippi was one of four states with a double-digit drop, alongside Alaska, New Mexico and South Dakota. Undergraduate enrollment in Mississippi decreased 10.1 percent since last spring, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data.
“With free tuition this summer and extra cash for living expenses, now is the perfect time for you to go back to college or come back,” Northeast Mississippi Community College executive vice president Craig-Ellis Sasser said in a statement.
The Maine Community College System, which saw an 8 percent drop in enrollment, is also offering high school graduates admitted to one of its seven campuses one free course this summer under a new initiative called Momentum from the Start. Students pay for textbooks and class materials but no fees and tuition.
One of the Maine campuses, York County Community College, is also allowing local high school students who participated in the college's dual-enrollment program to attend tuition-free for two years. The initiative, called York County ’21 Promise, serves students from households with incomes of $100,000 or less and who finished at least one dual or concurrent course at the college with a C grade or higher and have at least a 2.5 high school GPA.
“We really wanted to speak to the Class of 2021 and say, ‘If you have a plan, if you have a goal or if you have an intention, we want to support that intention,’” said Mercedes Pour, director of college access for the Maine system.
Pour was initially surprised by the enrollment decline. In the beginning of the pandemic, she and some of her colleagues expected students to choose more local options and community college enrollment to boom.
“But the reality is, a lot of students for whom community college is the choice, is the route to career, to credential, those are the very students that really were sidetracked by COVID, because they all of a sudden had to go to work or had to support a family or lost that childcare,” Pour said. “All of the things that COVID did to our country, those things happened to community college students and their families almost disproportionately.”
Community college enrollment dropped most steeply among underrepresented students, according to the clearinghouse report data. At public two-year institutions this spring, enrollment of Black and Latinx students fell by over 13 percent, and Native American enrollment plunged 17.3 percent, compared to an 11 percent decrease for white students.
Online learning has also made students hesitant to enroll. About 48 percent of college-bound high school students expressed a high level of anxiety that COVID-19 would affect whether they could start college in person in the upcoming academic year, according to a survey report by the higher education research firm SimpsonScarborough. The survey also found that high school students taking some or most of their classes online were twice as likely to feel unprepared to choose a college next fall.
Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin started its College Try program this spring to address this very issue. The program allows students to sample classes for free in the first week of the term and to borrow a laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot for as long as they’re taking the courses. The College Try campaign will continue through summer and next fall. It applies to both first-time students and returning students who did not enroll this past fall or dropped their classes during the fall refund period.
It’s a “big ask” to urge first-year students to embrace an online fall semester, said Chelsey Bowers, marketing manager at Madison Area Technical College.
“I remember when I started college, part of the experience is your cohort and that personal connection, all of those things we’re missing as a society and culture right now,” she said. “Some folks just don’t feel like they can take that first step without feeling like they’ll have that support.”
After nearly an 11 percent enrollment dip this spring, the goal of the College Try initiative is to let students see for themselves and sample what the institution’s online coursework is like, with the hopes they’ll stay. Summer enrollment was up about 32 percent as of the first week of April.
“It’s about squashing those insecurities and letting people know they can try out the class, they can meet the instructor, they can know that there’s this amazing support system for them,” Bowers said.
Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is taking a different approach. It is building facilities and programs designed to bring in adult learners. This fall, the college, which is part of the State University of New York system, or SUNY, is launching a hospitality and tourism program and an aviation maintenance technician program. It is also opening two new locations, an aviation education center and a new satellite campus in Fishkill, a village located near a well-traveled and convenient intersection used by people commuting to and from work, said Ellen Gambino, the college’s acting president.
The institution “has a long history of focusing on the more traditional-age student and more traditional transfer programs,” Gambino said. “That’ll always be at the core of what Dutchess Community College is and does,” but “we also know that there’s a market for the post-traditional student.”
Because community colleges mainly focus on recruiting locally, Hussak, of EAB, doesn’t see them competing to woo students with perks as fiercely as four-year institutions. She noted the U.S. Justice Department's 2019 push, under the Trump administration, for college admissions officers to relax ethics guidelines that prevented them from pursuing each other’s enrolled students. The department's action prompted a policy change by the National Association for College Admission Counseling to remove restrictions on offering incentives to students enrolled at other institutions. The shift led to something of an incentives “free-for-all,” Hussak said.
She’s found the pandemic has led to “quite a bit more inter-institution competition” for community colleges, with some sending marketing materials to prospective students beyond their counties, for example.
Still, she said the incentives are a “good first step” if they’re part of a more holistic approach to growing enrollment.
“The incentives are worth it to the extent they address the root cause issues,” she said. “And I think if we look back over the past year and across 2020, I think what many institutions realized is the root cause issues for students not enrolling [were] that the opportunity cost and the barriers to entry were simply too high, especially for those who were dealing with the ramifications of a public health crisis, of lost employment, of instability in terms of housing and basic needs.”
Toward that end, community colleges are more likely to reach out to prospective and returning students with information about new supports than to invest in institutional marketing as a recruitment strategy, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. She partly attributed that to a lack of resources, which makes it hard for community colleges to compete with four-year institutions during the pandemic. But she also emphasized that community college leaders are intentionally focusing on what resources students, especially first-generation students, need to feel they can successfully navigate remote learning.
Pour said community colleges now have a double mission -- enrolling this year’s graduating high school class and the graduates who didn’t enroll last year, the “lost class.”
“What happened to those students from the Class of 2020 that said they were intending to go to college and actually ended up at no college?” she said. “Who was choosing not to go? You’re talking about your low-income [students], you’re talking about your rural students, you’re talking about people for whom community college, and college in general, can be transformative.”