US community colleges see ‘chilling’ decline in enrollment during pandemic
David Ramirez, a student at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California, struggled with balancing work and classes during the pandemic. Ramirez, who works at Starbucks, worked at least 30 hours a week in addition to his classes.
He wasn’t alone. The number of students enrolled in community colleges – local educational establishments that offer two-year courses and are often seen as an affordable stepping stone to higher education – was down 9.5% this past spring, about 476,000 fewer students than in spring 2020, according to National Student Clearinghouse data released last month.
The fall has experts worried about the long-term impact of the pandemic on the less-well-off. During recessions, enrollment at community colleges tends to increase as those who become unemployed go back to school. But the disproportionate impact Covid-19 had on low-income and non-white Americans, populations that community colleges tend to serve, created a plunge in community college attendance during the pandemic.
“I didn’t really have the option to stay virtual and work from home, so I was essentially exposed to this virus every single day. That was a lot to handle on a day-to-day basis and then go home and try to work on schoolwork,” Ramirez said. “That’s the daily experience for students, especially because financial aid for community college doesn’t really cover the full cost of attendance.”
Online classes, especially for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects, were particularly frustrating to manage as the material was difficult to learn virtually.
“I imagine a lot of students simply gave up,” he said.
While overall college attendance dropped 5%, or 727,000 students, this spring compared with last year as many students opted out of virtual learning, community colleges saw the steepest declines when compared to four-year institutions and graduate schools. Enrollment at graduate schools actually increased 4.6% compared with last year.
The bulk of enrollment drops at community colleges were seen by schools’ youngest students, ages 18 to 24. Separate data from the National Student Clearinghouse has shown a 6.8% decline in graduates of the class of 2020 who attended college immediately after high school compared to the class of 2019.
This means while students with undergraduate degrees were getting advanced degrees in high numbers, many high school graduates chose not to attend college at all this year.
Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar and research professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, said the decline in college enrollment among graduating high school students is “chilling”.
“Delaying college really diminishes your chance of completing college,” Jenkins said. Particularly, if community college enrollment is declining, “you take away the opportunity of college for millions of students”.
“It’s going to increase the divide between education have and have-nots.”
Community college students make up about 40% of all undergraduate students in the country, totalling 8.2 million across over 1,400 community colleges, the majority of which are public institutions.
Many students who opt to attend community college over a four-year institution do so because tuition can be thousands of dollars cheaper. Two-thirds of community college students come from families with household incomes of under $50,000, and about 45% are students of color.
Low-income Americans were hardest-hit by the economic repercussions of Covid-19 compared to middle- and high-income Americans, being more likely to lose their jobs and remain unemployed during the course of the pandemic. The toll of the pandemic also disproportionately hit Black and Hispanic Americans, who saw Covid death rates that were at least two times higher than white Americans.
In a survey of about 25,000 students, community college students were more likely to cancel all plans for college compared to students enrolled at four-year colleges. They were also more likely to have caught, be concerned about or care for someone who had the virus and be concerned about the affordability of college.
Administrators at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, heard similar concerns from students who were busy caring for family or working and did not see the benefit of attending virtual classes. The school saw a 17% decline in enrollment this past school year.
“They were definitely affected by this, whether it be a family member who might have contracted Covid or they contracted Covid, or somebody in their family lost a job and they had to go to work instead of coming to school,” said Karen Miller, provost and executive vice-president of access, learning and success at Cuyahoga Community College. Some students were concerned about inconsistent wifi or a lack of quiet spaces to study at home.
Miller said that the community college had started efforts to get students to re-enroll in the fall, calling, emailing and texting them to let them know that the school will be back with at least 50% of the in-person capacity.
“We’re trying to re-engage them and let them know that we’re going to have on-ground opportunities, more on-ground classes and open up our service footprint again come August,” Miller said. “We’re hopeful that we’re going to see [students] come back this fall.”