Community college enrollment depends on many factors, including economic fluctuations, geopolitical stability, and market changes. Unfavorable circumstances, such as recession, low employment levels, and overall uncertainty, tend to discourage would-be students from pursuing higher education.
Instead, it pushes them to increasingly question the value and benefits of going to college and whether it’s wiser to join the workforce or sail into the self-entrepreneurial landscape. The pandemic is undoubtedly among the world’s most significant disruptors in recent history.
As such, it had a profound and lasting impact on every aspect of our lives, leaving education as no exception. For instance, the COVID-19 crisis forced community college students to cancel their education plans at more than double the rate of their peers at four-year colleges and universities.
The effects of the pandemic were discouraging, causing many students to quit their college experience, but they also convinced high school graduates to skip it. No wonder community college enrollment fell 10 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020.
But some groups of would-be students felt a more severe impact than others. As a result, the enrollment rates among Black and Latino students declined more sharply, up to 20 percent.
Even though the pandemic might end by 2024, we can already see how it has affected community colleges and students so far. Here’s everything you should know about it.
How Did The Pandemic Impact Community Colleges And Enrollment Levels
Even though it was expected differently, the pandemic didn’t encourage an increased number of workers and students to turn to college. Instead, the enrollment dropped, but multiple factors contributed to that.
The digital divide, a rapid shift to remote learning, and balancing work and studying are only some reasons why people didn’t take the path of higher education at the same levels as before the COVID-19 crisis. Thus, many community colleges lack variety in their program offering, which could be off-putting for students wanting to explore more specialized industries.
Since students’ basic living costs increased during the pandemic, the past three years were disproportionately challenging for those from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds. According to the Partnership Imperative report, 39 percent of students from two-year institutions experienced food insecurity, 52 percent struggled with housing issues, and 14 percent were homeless.
That means that many students have already entered college with various difficulties and challenges. Once the pandemic broke out, their struggles became even worse.
During the COVID-19 crisis, community colleges had to shift to online classes and remote learning, which wasn’t a smooth switch for everyone. E-learning requires a stable internet connection and continuously available electronic devices that support the digital form of classes and content.
However, not every community college student has internet access and the necessary technology. Yet, these institutions had no policies or initiatives to help students who needed them.
That is enough for many vulnerable would-be students to quit their plans to go to college and try to find a regular source of income immediately after graduating from high school.
But equipment isn’t the only problem that online learning might have created. This approach often lacks clear structure and requires stellar self-discipline from students.
A 2022 report by George Bulman and Robert Fairlie found that the transition to remote instruction might have reduced enrollment rates among community college students. The same report found that the larger drop in enrollment in the fall of 2020 compared to the spring was likely because students anticipated the classes would be fully online.
It’s also important to note that many community college students are adults and that the average age is 28. Many struggled to remain in school even before the pandemic and had to juggle financial pressures and academic work.
The Complexity Of Responsibilities Community College Students Face
Students in their mid and late twenties often add childcare to all other responsibilities, which can make studying beyond demanding. Since at least 40 percent left community college before earning a certificate or degree before the COVID-19 crisis started, things were bound to get worse after the pandemic.
The problems the world encountered in the past three years exacerbated already dire issues, often imposing impossible challenges on working students. For many, studying became an arduous balancing act that led to exhaustion and having to reduce at least one source of stress from their lives.
On top of that, not many community colleges had initiatives and mechanisms in place that would help students who are also parents. Yet, that was among the things that would be a significant support during the health crisis.
Most parenting students, including high school graduates, had to ensure their children completed their schoolwork during lockdowns and online classes, which had to be overwhelming. Besides, that often meant an overloaded capacity of the family’s home computer and leaving parents tired of multitasking.
That forced many students to press the pause button and choose to prioritize their well-being and families. Yet, no one is happy to abandon their dreams to graduate, nor should they be forced to do it.
But why didn’t things change once the government loosened the pandemic measures, as enrollment levels typically increase during economic disruptions and downturns, as it happened after the 2009 recession? It is possible that the relief packages that Congress enacted and the hope that jobs would return to normalcy after the pandemic made unemployed people hopeful and less willing to enroll and retrain for other careers.
The same optimism might have stopped many high school graduates from choosing to go to college. After all, if jobs could be plentiful after the crisis, some would-be students likely thought it unnecessary to start a degree program.
Other theories say enrollment levels didn’t increase because many of the abilities and skills taught at community colleges don’t transfer effectively to online learning. For example, students can’t learn how to cook, weld, or administer medicine online without using the relevant tools and equipment.
Community Colleges and The Tough Challenge Of Re-Attracting Potential Students
Even though community colleges allow low-income students to enroll tuition-free, the pandemic-induced job disruptions made it challenging for many people to cover their elementary living expenses. When would-be students and their parents can’t afford to pay rent, going to college is often perceived as an unnecessary luxury.
Because of that, many young people decided to pause the year and use it to work or return to their family homes. However, the enrollment decline was more apparent among first-year students who had never attended college before. On the other hand, some community colleges encountered budget cuts during the pandemic, preventing them from investing more in program improvements and marketing geared toward potential students.
Although the pandemic is no longer impacting our lives with the same intensity it did in the first two years, community colleges still have a long way ahead in re-attracting young people and re-establishing their position as the best place to earn education for middle-skills jobs. Yet, that is not a venture they should take alone, as today’s would-be students want to know they can expect safe employment after graduating.
That’s why employers should unite efforts with educators to mitigate the pandemic’s effects.
What Can Help Mitigate The Impact Of The Pandemic On Community Colleges?
Even before the pandemic, a stronger and more consistent partnership between community colleges and employers was necessary, but today is urgent. Educators have a demanding undertaking ahead – they must implement strategies that would lead to higher enrollment levels while ensuring the programs they offer are apt for growing workforce-ready graduates.
Most higher education institutions experienced a tough period during the pandemic, struggling with budget and student attraction. The impact of that time is still present, as community colleges often can’t meet business needs and demands.
According to The Partnership Imperative report, employers are not entirely happy with recent local graduates’ foundational and technical skills and knowledge. They said the talent that community colleges produce is insufficient to close the middle-skills jobs gap.
Even though the pandemic and the ripple effect it caused is not the only reason for that gap, it was among the most significant. Many community colleges didn’t reach their targeted enrollment levels, leading to a reduced number of students and future employees.
However, it’s crucial to note that employers also play a role in this middle-skills gap, as they don’t communicate effectively and openly with educators. Instead of sharing their job requirements, market needs, and skills trends, they find available talents in the open market.
Employers and educators had an impaired collaboration for decades, which led to the former having low expectations in terms of talent quality and capacity. Conversely, educators grow accustomed to businesses putting in the minimum effort and not discussing their needs.
That must change, or their collaboration will never be enough to address the impact of the pandemic on community college enrollment and middle-skills gaps. For that to happen, both parties must embrace that the current system doesn’t yield favorable employment opportunities for future students.
It also requires working on finding solutions that would make students’ lives easier, especially for those from vulnerable backgrounds and with additional responsibilities, such as parenting and working while studying. Starting an honest and productive conversation about this problem could be the first step toward changing the current situation, mitigating the aftermaths of the pandemic, and developing highly skilled and employable graduates.