A Multipronged Approach

Northern Essex Community College introduced a slew of new initiatives to enroll and retain Hispanic students after the pandemic led to a sharp enrollment decline. The college recovered the losses, and administrators learned lasting lessons about how to better serve these students.

March 8, 2022
Mayerley Astacio advises English as a second language students as a student ambassador at Northern Essex Community College.
(Northern Essex Community College)

Northern Essex Community College, the first Hispanic-serving institution in Massachusetts, experienced an alarming 7.5 percent drop in Hispanic student enrollment at the height of the pandemic in fall 2020. The decline prompted college administrators to quickly roll out a series of supports and interventions to recruit and retain those students.

The college launched a new bilingual chat bot on its website to answer questions about enrollment and other subjects, placed Spanish-language advertisements on local billboards to promote the college to Spanish-speaking families, and created a student ambassador program that provides peer support, among other initiatives. The efforts worked—the college more than regained its losses this academic year.

The number of Hispanic students rose 6.5 percent in fall 2021 and another 3.16 percent this spring. (Northern Essex administrators use the term “Hispanic” after polling students about their preferred term.) (This sentence was revised to reflect a lower percentage in increased spring semester enrollment. A college official initially said the percentage was 4.2 percent but later noted the error.) 

“We became very student-centered, more strategically than we’ve ever been,” said Jennifer Mezquita, vice president of student affairs at the college. “I think we’ve always had the spirit to serve the community that we’re here to serve, but I think we became more intentional with truly delivering on ensuring that … we’re delivering the services the way our students are best able to connect with them. Instead of requiring our students to be ready for us, we became a college that was ready to serve the students that we are here to serve.”

Higher education institutions across the country experienced declines in Hispanic enrollment during the pandemic, and over all have not recouped their losses. Hispanic enrollment fell 4.2 percent at colleges and universities nationwide in fall 2020 and another 2.8 percent in fall 2021, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data. Community colleges saw even steeper declines in Hispanic enrollment than four-year institutions—10.2 percent in fall 2020 and 6.1 percent in fall 2021.

Northern Essex students faced “a cloud of uncertainty,” Mezquita said. Many lost jobs, especially in the service industries. Prioritizing education became difficult for students struggling to support their families and concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones as COVID-19 infections spread through Hispanic communities, and people died, at high rates.

Competing needs ultimately “really took a toll on the students that we’re serving,” Mezquita noted.

Similar outcomes were occurring across the country, and although the rates at which enrollment declined caught college administrators off guard, the demographics of the affected population surprised no one.

Hispanic community college students are “more likely to be [from] lower-income families, blue-collar workers” whose jobs were most at risk during the pandemic, said Deborah Santiago, co-founder and CEO of Excelencia in Education, an organization focused on Hispanic students’ academic success. They’re also more likely to be first-generation college students.

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The downward trend in Hispanic student enrollment is especially worrisome because “we were the primary growth population prior to the pandemic” in higher education, Santiago said. “Not only did we not hit the growth expected, we further declined beyond that.”

Administrators at Northern Essex felt they had to act fast to stem the decline. Since the pandemic, staff members have adopted a more personalized “case management approach” to enrollment, individually texting, calling and emailing students at each juncture in the enrollment process to discuss next steps. College leaders also instituted a mandatory online orientation and translated orientation and enrollment materials into Spanish. Further, the college advertised itself in Spanish on television and social media.

The chat bot, named Squire, now appears on the college’s website to answer an array of student questions, in English or Spanish, about registering for courses, applying for financial aid and other topics. It has had about 4,965 conversations with students, and about 6 percent have been in Spanish.

While less than 10 percent of applicants requested communications from the college in Spanish, Mezquita said providing help and resources in Spanish is especially useful to students’ families. Family members are often students’ “support system” and can encourage them to “act based on the information that we’ve shared in their native language,” she said.

“The goal is not just for the student to be the consumer of the information, but it’s also the family unit,” she said. “And we’re looking for them to be our partner in our students’ educational journey.”

Santiago agreed that going to college is “often a family decision,” so she’s been gratified to see colleges making more “intentional” outreach to family members in Hispanic communities.

Northern Essex also launched a new student ambassador program in fall 2020 so students can lean on their peers for support. The ambassadors hired by the college reach out to a list of students to remind them about important dates and deadlines on the academic calendar, check in on them, and answer questions students may have about college, especially during the pandemic.

Of the current ambassadors, 12 out of the 17 are Hispanic and three are bilingual, in order to “reflect the majority of the students that we serve,” Mezquita said.

Mayerley Astacio, an ambassador, started taking English as a second language classes at Northern Essex Community College when she moved to Massachusetts from the Dominican Republic in 2013. Now an engineering student at the college, she advises students learning English. She said she regularly texts and emails with about 100 peers about their IT troubles, where to buy textbooks and her tips for succeeding in ESL and other courses.

She believes her experiences give her practical and specialized knowledge that can be useful to her classmates—she’s familiar with the ESL course requirements and professors—but she also hopes she can be an inspiration to those who might be struggling.

“I remember when I started that program and I didn’t know any English, it was very frustrating for me, understanding my professor,” she said. “I felt really stuck, I guess. So, just knowing that somebody else finished that program and they do know the language now and they advanced and they’re doing a degree now—things like that. If I was that person, it would give me really positive vibes about finishing strong and feeling like I can accomplish it and be like them in the future.”

The college also used $20,000 in COVID-19 relief funding to pilot two new college access and retention efforts. The college waived fees for students to participate in the College Level Examination Program, which gives students the opportunity to earn college credits for prior learning and graduate in a shorter time. For example, students who grew up speaking Spanish can take a Spanish language exam and earn college credits if they pass. Ninety percent of the students who had their fees covered took the exams for Spanish.

This academic year, the college also covered fees for 125 students who needed their high school or college transcripts from other countries translated into English to receive credits.

Mezquita said administrators noticed a pattern that students tasked with getting transcripts translated often applied but never completed their enrollment process. Fees for the translation process generally range from $75 to $130.

That might sound like a small sum, but “for a first-generation, low-income students who is unfortunately not able to afford $75 to have their high school transcript translated, that is a huge barrier for them,” she said. It was important to college leaders to “not only look at the big picture but really look at any barrier, not just the big ones.”

The federal funds allowed administrators “to creatively test some of our assumptions and our perceived barriers to enrollment, to persistence, to retention and even graduation for some,” she added.

Santiago, of Excelencia in Education, said some HSIs have been able to recover from enrollment losses. But the enrollment landscape remains a “mixed bag” for these institutions, which together serve more than 60 percent of Hispanic students in the country. Many community colleges in particular continue to experience declines in Hispanic enrollment, and some colleges and universities have even lost their federal HSI designation because of enrollment declines, she said.

She sees other colleges making overt efforts to reach out to Hispanic communities, including having faculty and staff members call students to connect them to campus resources, and pursuing new partnerships with K-12 schools and community-based organizations to support students through the transition from high school to college.

Santiago believes it’s crucial for colleges to take action to reverse declining Hispanic student enrollment and ensure these students have access to a college education so the colleges can stay viable as institutions.

“You’re not going to get to your enrollment and completion goals without a tactical plan for Latinos,” she said.

Mezquita said efforts to strategize and create better supports for students and lift Hispanic enrollment at Northern Essex exemplify the purpose of community colleges.

“We’re bold enough to say we’re here to help all students—not the easy ones, not the ones that we don’t have to really be strategic about assisting,” she said. “We’re here to help all.”

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