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Countering falling community college enrollment

The community college enrollment news is not good. Students and would-be students are staying away in droves amid the pandemic. But the enrollment news is not bad everywhere. Elite colleges and universities report that their Fall 2021 admissions applications are up – way up.

Harvard University, for example, has received 42% more applications this year than in prior years. Yale saw a similar 38% increase in applications for fall admission. The University of Michigan’s application process for most schools closed just yesterday, so complete application data is not yet available. It’s likely – however – that Michigan will see a similar jump in applications.

But it isn’t just the elite universities that are seeing a significant increase in applications from prospective students. Eastern Michigan University received 12% more applications for Fall 2021 admission than it received the prior year. To date, EMU has admitted 23% more students. EMU does not have an application deadline but advises students to apply at least 3 months prior to the start of their preferred first semester.

So, what gives?

Many analysts attribute the increase in applications to the use of the Common Application. The University of Michigan adopted the Common App a few years ago. It allows students to file one common application with multiple schools. Currently, more than 900 schools have signed on. Nine of Michigan’s 15 public four-year universities accept the Common App, including EMU. Two—year colleges don’t use the Common App, so it doesn’t factor into community college enrollment.

A simplified FAFSA form is also in play, but since community colleges also use it, it shouldn’t give four-year universities a major advantage.

Sitting out the SAT may increase university enrollment

But there may be another reason that university application pools are expanding, and it has nothing to do with the convenience of a centralized application tool. Simply put, many universities – from the elite to the ordinary – have temporarily dropped the requirement that applicants take either the ACT or the SAT. The pandemic makes the carefully monitored testing regimens next to impossible. It also renders the somewhat opaque scoring irrelevant. High school students love it, and universities like it, too.

For starters, this one stark change delivers minority applicants straight to University doorsteps. For years, colleges and universities have attempted to extract themselves from the “minimum required standardized test score” requirement. Frankly, the test either cuts off a lot of qualified and diverse students. Or, applicants become serial testers until they achieve the score they think their preferred university wants.

The pay-to-play “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal in 2019 didn’t help. The wide-ranging scheme incorporated everyone from university athletic coaches to standardized testing center personnel and professional test-takers. It also called into question the value of standardized testing as an admissions qualifier.

The pandemic made it very simple to eliminate the SAT and ACT from the admissions process altogether. After all, it’s a national emergency, right?

And community college enrollment doesn’t depend on SAT or ACT scores. At least, not in the way it does for university hopefuls.

Unintended consequence and R1 Universities

Enter the Law of Unintended Consequences. In any other year, a “bad” SAT score could broadside a student’s dream of going to their dream school. That student may not even apply. Or they may opt to take a different route – transferring from a community college. Pandemically speaking, if students know they can apply to a more competitive university without having to explain a lousy SAT score, why not knock on Dream University’s front door first?

The same is true for less competitive schools like EMU. Why should students “waste time” at a community college when their chances of being directly admitted to a four-year university just dramatically improved?

The universities aren’t trying to hurt community college enrollment, but they are more than happy to see lots of prospective undergraduates. 2020 was a bad year for research universities. For example, the University of Michigan drew in $1.62B in research funding in 2019. In the same year, UM brought in a comparatively skinny $230M in tuition revenues. So, when the 2020 pandemic rolled in, and Michigan (along with most other R1 universities) hit the e-stop on their research programs, the research revenue also e-stopped. But tuition kept coming in. And it’s going to take R1 universities a long time to make up a year of “lost” research revenues. So, why not welcome more students while they restart their research engines?

The broken transfer pipeline will hurt the community college

Experience, rather than the pandemic, is exposing a hard truth about community college enrollment as a transfer strategy. In practice, most (as in about 85%) of students who enter a community college with the intent of transferring to a four-year university never get that far. The community college “transfer pipeline” is mostly empty. That’s not the community college’s fault, but it does point to transferring as more of a long shot than anything else.

The pandemic is exposing another hard truth about community college students: they live on the margins. They’ve always lived on the margins, and most people accept that. But the pandemic has made those margins a lot thinner. Community college enrollment can be a pathway to a better job or a better degree, but not when people are afraid to spend even a small amount of money. Or when they need to work two or three jobs. Or they’re so embedded in the “gig economy” that they don’t have the time to sit in the classroom or the money to pay their rent, much less a tuition bill.

So, any strategy to raise community college enrollment had better consider these factors. Right now – the community college’s best enrollment bets are recent high school graduates and adult learners looking to move up. Selling the transfer option is probably off the table until further notice.

The strategy must reduce the cost-of-attendance to zero or near-zero. It must focus on career training. And it must appeal to students who aren’t trying (at least initially) to get a four-year degree. With the community college “transfer pipeline” being thoroughly dysfunctional, the research universities will be talking directly to four-year hopefuls for the next several years.

Free community college programs mean work

Free community college programs can undoubtedly have a positive impact on two-year enrollment. It is simplistic to think, however, that the students will simply roll in. These programs are almost certainly just one budget cycle away from cancellation unless they produce some stellar results. And the State will be looking for just that – stellar results. Producing them is going to demand a lot of actual work from our well-paid and well-staffed community college administration.

Graduates who land high-wage jobs will be the yardstick that measures free community college. Right now, it is the only dashboard that matters.

Photo Credit: Penn State University, via Flickr