Pulling Out All the Stops

Community colleges are employing various strategies to attract students this fall and recover from enrollment losses related to the pandemic.

August 26, 2021
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Community colleges are trying a host of strategies -- cash incentives, marketing campaigns, ice cream socials, free books, re-enrollment drives -- to attract students this fall after steep enrollment declines during the pandemic.

Whether the expanding array of recruitment strategies will work remains unclear as community colleges continue to register students for the fall semester. Some institutions have reported enrollment boosts, but administrators at other institutions and higher ed experts say most community colleges continue to project declines.

“Generally what I’m hearing is we’re fighting to stay stable -- and that would be stable with last year’s enrollment, which was on decline,” said Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit organization focused on community college student success.

Enrollment fell 9.5 percent at community colleges across the country this spring compared to spring 2019, following an equally steep enrollment drop in fall 2020 compared to the previous fall, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Matthew Reed, vice president for academic affairs at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey (and a blogger for Inside Higher Ed), pointed out that community college students are taking fewer courses and increasingly attending part-time because of their "complicated lives" as the pandemic continues. Students continue to feel the effects of lost jobs and income, many were challenged by more than a year of remote or hybrid learning, and others who are parents are juggling work, education and childcare.

Some administrators expressed hope earlier this summer that their institutions would begin recovering this fall from pandemic enrollment losses, but that rosy outlook took a hit with the spread of the Delta variant, the hyperinfectious strain of the coronavirus that is forcing some colleges to reinstitute safety protocols such as mask mandates and online instruction.

“The Delta variant has thrown everyone a curve,” said Jack Beresford, director of communications and public relations for the San Diego Community College District. “We were seeing progress. Our district like many others planned to use the fall to transition to full reopening by January, meaning returning to mostly in-person classes, normal operations … As we’ve seen, of course, COVID had other plans.”

He said the district is doing “everything we can to get students into the classroom.” Thus far, the total of 31,937 students enrolled in three of the districts’ colleges for fall 2021 is 6 percent lower than last fall and 12 percent lower than the 36,202 students enrolled in 2019, before the pandemic. The fourth college, the San Diego College of Continuing Education, starts the semester Sept. 7 and has yet to report fall numbers.

Prior to the pandemic, first-generation students made up almost a third of the student body at the three colleges and 43 percent of students received financial aid, he added.

The district launched a $217,000 marketing initiative to encourage enrollment at all four colleges. The six-month campaign, which began Aug. 16, includes ads on billboards, buses and transit shelters that read “Your Future Starts Here” and marketing on social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat.

“We felt it was important for the district to have one message and one look so that we can really reach out to students, many of whom have had to pause their education due to the pandemic, and let them know we’re here for them, we can support them, and they’ve got four colleges to choose from here in San Diego,” Beresford said.

Some colleges are worse off than others, said Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. Community colleges in the state experienced “grim” declines -- a loss of about 11,000 students systemwide since the pandemic began -- but rural colleges are faring better than their urban counterparts this fall because they are more likely to have student housing and athletics programs, which are attractive to students who want an on-campus experience.

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Campuses in Colorado’s cities typically serve more adult and working students who are now more likely to either be working in or pursuing full-time jobs after a tough financial year, Garcia said. He also noted that enrollment challenges vary by state. Some states, unlike Colorado, are also struggling with declining numbers of traditional college-age students.

Community colleges are also targeting certain demographics of students as an enrollment strategy.

Stout said she’s seen a “renewed and urgent focus” on gateway and dual-enrollment programs to attract high school students.

Some institutions are also making special efforts to re-enroll students, particularly older adults, who dropped out before graduating.

Colleges are “really going back the last few years in their records and reaching back out to those students,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “In many cases, it’s a personal touch where they’re calling or direct mailing to those students.”

Five North Carolina institutions within the state community college system -- Blue Ridge Community College, Fayetteville Technical Community College, Pitt Community College, Vance-Granville Community College and Durham Technical Community College -- today announced a campaign to re-enroll up tp 12,000 students in the state through a partnership with InsideTrack, a nonprofit organization that helps colleges and universities increase student enrollment, college completion and career readiness. Coaches from InsideTrack are working with students one on one to navigate the re-enrollment process.

The initiative comes after an enrollment decline of about 11 percent at North Carolina community colleges last year. The head count was 349,592 students in fall 2020, down from 422,146 students in fall 2019, a loss of more than 72,500 students across the system of 58 colleges.

Laura Leatherwood, president of Blue Ridge Community College, said the program targets students ages 25 through 44 who have earned at least half the credits required for a degree or credential and who have been out of college for at least five years. The college also offered scholarships this year that cover tuition, fees and books for North Carolina residents enrolled in a minimum of six credits.

While the numbers are still in flux, overall fall enrollment at the college was up more than 13 percent as of Wednesday, compared to fall 2019. Meanwhile, the number of students above age 25 increased by 12 percent.

Leatherwood believes those numbers are “indicative that the work that we’ve been doing has been successful.”

Some institutions are giving out free tuition credits or providing free textbooks and parking, branded swag, and even cash to entice students and ease some of the financial burdens that may be keeping them from enrolling.

The Community College of Aurora, for example, started a Return to Earn program, which plans to re-enroll 75 students this year who stopped out before earning their credentials. The college will pay students who complete the semester with a passing grade between $500 and $1,000, with funds from a charitable foundation and other donors.

Arizona Western College launched the CA$H in Your Pocket initiative this summer, which pays students after enrolling this fall. Full-time students who completed the application for federal financial aid receive $1,500 each, while part-time students get varying amounts based on the level of financial support they get from family. The program draws on federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Parham noted that many of these financial incentives were made possible by federal stimulus money. She said informing students of ways they can take advantage of COVID-19 relief funds has been a major part of community colleges’ recruitment efforts. She also pointed to the wave of community colleges using relief funds to cover student debts to the institutions as yet another move that could boost enrollment.

“In our history, I can’t think of another time when our colleges had available funding to eradicate those funding barriers,” she said. “I don’t think we can understate the value of those funds.”

Reed noted that the federal funding put community college leaders more at ease about the ongoing enrollment decreases.

“If you’d asked leaders a year ago what it would look like if enrollment dropped by that much, they would have screamed,” he said. “And it hurt, but it wasn’t the catastrophe it could have been because we had some really well-timed backup, and that was more than welcome.”

Thomas Stith III, president of the North Carolina Community College System, said community colleges are also trying to expand their student pool by introducing new programs to meet local workforce needs and marketing those opportunities to potential students. For example, the system signed an agreement Monday with the University of North Carolina system creating a new pathway to the university's teacher education programs to address a teacher shortage in the state.

Colleges are also turning to tried-and-true methods such as on-campus registration events and information sessions to entice students and streamline the enrollment process. Berkshire Community College in Massachusetts is hosting two Saturday registration days this month, when applicants can register virtually or in person on campus with the help of academic advisers and financial aid officers. Suffolk County Community College similarly offered in-person registration days at its three campuses in New York throughout this month.

On a sweltering 90-degree day earlier this month, Brookdale Community College invited prospective students to campus for an ice cream social with faculty members to learn about the college’s business and social science degree programs and courses. Reed described students chatting with professors over milkshakes from a Mr. Softee truck.

He said he didn’t “sense panic” in conversations with community college leaders in New Jersey.

“What I got was a sense of ‘we’re going to get through this,’” he said.

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