The pandemic has not been kind to community college enrollment. Since March 2020, enrollment at two-year colleges has dropped by more than 14%. First generation college students play a larger role in the decline than you might realize. It is becoming clear that the decline is more complex than the emergence of SARS-COV2.
The move to online learning, the wage growth among workers without a high school diploma, the meager return-on-investment for two-year degrees, the growing unwillingness of people to take on educational debt, lack of childcare, lack of transportation, lack of internet service, lack of learning space at home, lack of educational technology and the risk of sitting in crowded classroom have all taken a turn as the reason for declining community college enrollment. There is at least a half-dozen more.
But COVID-19 is not the only reason people are bypassing community college degrees. Consider this: approximately one-third of all community college students are the first in their families to attend college. Being a first generation student comes with some very distinct challenges and disadvantages. First generation college graduates have a harder time landing a job, accept lower starting salaries and less challenging work than their counterparts with a family history of college attendance.
And the impact of accepting a lower starting salary compounds with time. Ten years after graduation, these first generation graduates still earn substantially less, creating what amounts to a permanent lifetime earning deficit.
This makes it even harder for first generation students to justify enrolling in post-secondary studies. And when “first generation college student” describes one-third of your student body, it is easy to see why community colleges do not survive this calculus very well. The return on investment is just too small.
Eliminating the discount for first generation college students
At this point, community college administrators should look for ways to extend the value of a community college degree. For so long, they have tailored programs for employers that they have managed to eliminate any value for the student. The administration at Washtenaw Community College has even managed to transform WCC into a certificate school.
It should come as no surprise that would-be students no longer want to play a game that they cannot win. Especially when the outcome places them at a profound lifelong economic disadvantage. Right now, there is no win-win here for community college students, and they are rightly voting with their feet.
Community college administrations cannot position themselves exclusively as agents of local employers. They must support first generation college students by providing them with opportunities to network with professionals in their chosen fields, internship opportunities, mentorships, résumé support, workshops on negotiating starting salaries and job responsibilities, and other post-graduation skills they will need to maximize the value of their degrees. In fact, they should support all students like this.
Further, community colleges should disclose to prospective students any programmatic relationships they have with employers and any influence that industry personnel have exerted on academic programs, including monetary and in-kind donations. By-laws should require Trustees to file annual public disclosures of all their business relationships to identify conflicts of interest that may arise between their business interests and their roles as Trustees.
For far too long, the education game has been tilted against first generation students. Prospective students need to understand exactly who their community college works for.
Photo Credit: Environmental Illness Network , via Flickr