Six Strategies Community Colleges are Using to Help Bring Students Back & Stay Enrolled

Blog Post
Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash
March 22, 2021

Enrollment is down almost ten percent across community colleges. This spring, declining enrollment has continued disproportionately impacting Indigenous, Black, and Latino students. We wanted to know how colleges are working to bring students--who have left or decided not to attend college--back to school.

New America spoke with leaders representing over 20 community colleges, tribal colleges, community college associations, and state systems over the spring, summer, and fall of 2020. Last week, we convened a group of sixteen of these leaders to see how their institutions are currently faring and what their plans are for the fall. Here are six strategies colleges in our convening are using to help students come back to college or stay enrolled:

Offering emergency aid. Colleges are packaging stimulus and foundation funds to provide emergency aid to both retain and re-enroll students. As one college administrator put it “we're also going to use the recent stimulus funding to really figure out a way to [target] those students who stopped out and...incentivize them to come back to college.”

Implementing small debt forgiveness. Another approach is to offer students forgiveness of small debts if they re-enroll and maintain a certain grade point average. Many schools won't let students register for classes if they hold debt above a certain level--like $750--and colleges are also waiving that registration hold. As with emergency aid, sometimes a one-time injection of resources can make all the difference for a would-be returning student.

Forging partnerships to cover tuition. Another college was working with their local One Stop workforce center to support students who couldn’t pay their tuition. As this Vice President described it, “We had over 100 students who were in a position where they either need to pay or [they couldn’t stay enrolled]. [The One Stop] was able to reach out to those students and tell them that if they met the [eligibility] for programs at our workforce center, they would be happy to pay their tuition.”

No penalty for pauses in enrollment. Colleges knew that many students would need to pause enrollment in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. One decided to make a special designation in student records for registration and financial aid purposes with no loss of aid eligibility for students who needed to hit pause on their education because of the crisis. That way, students would feel welcome to re-enroll when they are able.

Strategically reaching out. Colleges are reaching out in other ways to their former students or those who may have had to pause their education during the pandemic, letting them know that they are welcome to re-enroll when their lives permit. One college has assigned student services personnel to call these students and check in on them. This communicates care to the student and builds a relationship that will hopefully facilitate the student’s return.

Adapting marketing. Administrators know that many people are not enrolling because they are worried about their health and safety. One college representative told us, “If they can afford it, the next part is, ‘Am I going to be safe when I come back to your classroom?” To respond, the college is developing a “marketing strategy that really gives the students an opportunity to peer into what we will look like come fall.”

Colleges and their students face many challenges in the wake of the pandemic. Community colleges need to think strategically about connecting with and holistically supporting returning and new students. As community colleges across the country consider the most effective ways to welcome students back, leaders at peer institutions offer these ideas currently helping them hold the doors open for their students.

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Higher Education Access and Affordability