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Income determines community college persistence during pandemic

A recent analysis of data collected by the United States Census Bureau this summer shows that household income was the primary determinant of whether college students remained in classes or dropped out. Researchers from Teachers College of Columbia University examined data from 25,000 people who indicated that they either planned to enroll in a community college as a first-time student or intended to continue studies they had already started.

By October, 40% of those who had earlier indicated they planned to enroll in community college classes had dropped those plans. An additional 15% had reduced their course load or had switched programs. The researchers compared these numbers to students at four-year universities. Among those students, fewer than 20% had canceled their enrollment plans.

Community college students in lower income households were twice as likely to report dropping their classes. Two-year students with children and students who lost their jobs during the pandemic were at high risk for dropping out. Black and Hispanic community college students were slightly more likely to withdraw than their white counterparts.

Among the most-often cited reasons for dropping classes among two-year students were the fear of contracting COVID-19. Community college students were more likely to have others at home whose care they were responsible for. They also cited concerns regarding college costs and financial aid. One of the primary sticking points was childcare and managing learn-from-home requirements for young children. Additionally, many community college students work in sectors strongly impacted by the pandemic. The uncertainty of working in “front line” positions or losing work due to the coronavirus affected students’ decisions.

Community college enrollment may suffer for years

Researchers believe that community colleges may have a more difficult time re-enrolling students who dropped out during the pandemic. Without changes to financial aid eligibility, and programs to help students bridge the “digital divide,” some fear that these students may be lost forever.

Knowing which students have been disfranchised during the pandemic is only one step in the process to reconnect them. Developing programs to assist students who may have lost financial aid eligibility is another. Third, community colleges must find ways to assist individuals who need additional support (including transportation, food or childcare) to be successful in school.

Resuming in-person instruction will not simply make the effects of the pandemic go away. Rebuilding enrollment will take time. It will also demand the full effort and attention of the community college staff. As a community, we cannot afford to have our community college distracted by side hustles that do not directly address the educational needs of Washtenaw County residents.

Photo Credit: Nenad Stojkovic, via Flickr