Feb. 15, 2022
Community college enrollment has significantly declined since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This decline threatens educational equity and is particularly troubling for adult learners. A group of students disproportionately composed of people of color and people with low incomes, adult students have experienced enrollment declines that have been larger at community colleges than in any other sector of higher education.
To help address this critical problem, the Center on Education & Labor at New America has partnered with six community colleges to help re-enroll adult students who have stopped out of college since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These colleges are:
- Harry S Truman College - one of the City Colleges of Chicago
- Prairie State College
- Southwestern Oregon Community College
- Mt. Hood Community College
- Delgado Community College
- Fletcher Technical Community College
While these colleges – and the students they serve – have vastly different needs, all six colleges have faced significant enrollment declines since the beginning of the pandemic and need to bring adults back to campus.
COVID-19: A Universal Challenge to Community Colleges
COVID-19 has created enormous obstacles for each of these colleges. From fall 2019 to fall 2021, these schools had enrollment declines ranging from 17 percent to 36 percent. While there are many reasons why these colleges, like community colleges nationally, have witnessed enrollment declines, there’s one underlying truth to this phenomenon: COVID-19 has made it incredibly challenging for community colleges to recruit and retain students.
Central to these challenges have been frequent disruptions and changes to public health guidance that dictate whether colleges can safely offer in-person classes. As a manager of Academic Advising at one college in our cohort said the:
“Changes [in public health guidance] affect our enrollment, our students, how we build policy, and how we try to help students. The fluid nature of the pandemic - the pivots - the wait and see, managing that with the staff, students, and faculty and the communication between [everyone] has been a challenge. We’ve suffered from enrollment [declines] because some students aren’t okay with enrolling in fully virtual classes, others aren’t comfortable coming to campus at all…Childcare and transportation [became even bigger] issues.”
Amidst the first wave of COVID-19 infections and resulting public health measures, these colleges faced daunting technological and logistical challenges to providing virtual learning for their students. While colleges nationwide had to pivot to remote learning, this was particularly challenging for rural colleges and colleges that serve students who lack internet access at home. As an administrator of a rural college in our cohort said:
“Rural community colleges are at a deficit [with technology]. We have one on-site programmer. When we pivoted to providing remote classes, there was a time where our servers were crashing. Rural community colleges really need more support with [technological capacity] moving forward.”
Beyond needing to pivot to provide virtual learning, the colleges in our cohort faced another daunting reality: the students they serve have far greater needs than ever before. This is particularly true for adult students, who struggled to afford their living expenses – including childcare, housing, and transportation – while attending college even before the pandemic. Because of COVID-19, these same students face increased economic hardship and frequent childcare disruptions. This has made it even more challenging for adult students to thrive in college, and therefore, harder for community colleges to adequately serve them.
What Went Right: Enhanced Technological Capacity, Virtual Student Supports, and Addressing Students’ Basic Needs
Despite facing significant obstacles, the colleges in this cohort have enhanced their technological capacity, provided high-quality virtual student supports, and when possible, have helped address students’ basic needs. By developing the technological ability to provide students with high-quality, flexible, remote learning opportunities, these colleges are, as the Dean of Student Success at one college in our cohort said, “in a much better position to serve the students of the 21st century.” An administrator from another college echoed this sentiment by sharing:
“Our interactions with students are better now than they have been in the past…we’ve learned so much about student needs and how they prefer to interact with us.”
By providing virtual student support services, multiple colleges in our cohort have increased the number of student advising appointments they’ve conducted since the onset of the pandemic. A Vice President of one college explained:
“We’ve seen a massive growth in the number of advising appointments we’re doing. Over the past 2 years we’ve lost [so much] of our campus – the majority of that’s because of the pandemic – but everyone is being significantly more intentional with the students we do have so the students feel like they have a sense of belonging and a support structure.”
These colleges, despite facing enrollment declines and significant barriers, have responded to the pandemic by doing whatever they can to meet their students’ needs. For multiple colleges in our cohort, this has meant implementing a case management system of student supports, and hiring benefits coordinators, so that colleges can help students access public benefits that they are eligible for. By working to address students’ needs and living expenses, these community colleges aim to foster the long-term success of their students.
The Road Ahead: Re-Enrolling & Meeting the Needs of Adult Students
Over the next 18 months, we’ll work with these colleges to help develop the institutional capacity and strategies necessary to re-enroll adult students. While we develop technical assistance along with our partners Student Ready Strategies, we will also analyze the policy changes necessary to ensure community colleges can rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic. In partnership with this cohort, we will work to ensure community colleges can meet the growing needs of adult students. This critical importance of this work is summarized in the words of the Vice President of a college in the cohort:
“Adult learners' needs are extensive and we rarely have the resources to meet their needs. Whatever we can do to increase those resources, we will increase the success of our students, and the success and lives of our community members. That will lead to multi-generational increases in educational attainment.”
We look forward to learning from adult students, community college faculty and staff, and other researchers on how to best engage, and re-enroll, adult learners. Stay tuned for upcoming publications and findings from our shared efforts.
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