In many economic downturns, cost-conscious families turn to more financially feasible options. With the average cost of college enrollment now climbing over $41,000 a year, community college is an accessible alternative, especially as travel restrictions mean more young people staying closer to home. But new research released in December 2020 reveals startling statistics, and an alarming trend for community colleges, as higher education institutions around the country grapple with the ongoing challenges the pandemic presents. Across the country, postsecondary enrollments declined 2.5% in fall 2020, nearly twice the rate of enrollment decline reported in fall 2019. But even more striking is the decline in community college enrollment – a 21% enrollment decrease on average, falling at a rate almost 20 times higher than pre-pandemic decline. The statewide drop New York is experiencing means community colleges need to get creative to appeal to students.
Traditionally, the college application process can be a major source of stress for students. But with fewer students opting to pursue higher education some schools like Clinton Community College (CCC), are going after students to boost engagement. The Albany Times Union reports that if CCC gets federal approval, it will launch a program that would allow inmates at nearby Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora to take classes remotely. This would offset the community college’s loss of about 45% of its student enrollment over the last decade. They’re not alone in needing to fill class spots. New York’s 64-campus State University system opened this semester with 5.7% fewer students than it had one year ago according to data released by SUNY administrators. Several campuses offering graduate programs have seen a significant drop of 20% in the number of international students they attract. The statewide drop has been paced by a decline of some 10% in enrollments at SUNY’s community colleges. Expanding outreach and offering remote access to nontraditional groups is one creative option to offset costs and create sustainable growth in the coming years.
Without in-person events, campus tours, or high school counseling sessions, students can start to feel disconnected from their education path. The National College Attainable Network suggests the administration should continue contact with students from the class of 2021 regularly so kids know where to turn when they need support. That means keeping email addresses, phone numbers, and other communications avenues updated so that as opportunities to get back on a postsecondary pathway arise, students can stay in the know. Additionally, the NCAN recommends adding more postsecondary on-ramps for the class of 2021. That might look like increasing support for national service programs like AmeriCorps and strengthening the college and career readiness programming they provide. Did you know that parents are the top influencer when it comes to students’ enrollment decisions? Students who provide parent contact information permitting schools to contact parents directly are 53% more likely to submit a college application according to EAB data.
Unfortunately, even in a pre-pandemic world, community colleges were facing challenges. A survey of college and university admissions directors completed by Inside Higher Ed revealed that 84% of community colleges have seen enrollment declines over the past two years. The implications of this new “lost class” are expected to be felt on a wide basis as young adults enter the workforce out of high school. While some are opting to take a gap year and resume education when in-person learning resumes, research shows students who delay enrollment are 64% less likely than their “on-time” peers to complete a bachelor’s degree and 18% less likely to complete any college credential. As we begin to feel the impact of the rollout and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, a return to normalcy is on the horizon. Student outreach is the most important part of the next few months to increase awareness and encourage enrollment.