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Low enrollment during pandemic may carry over

A new analysis from The Hechinger Report shows that community colleges may have bigger problems than pandemic-induced low enrollment. Community colleges took a big hit this fall when enrollment plunged nationwide by nearly 10%. As administrators struggle to understand why their students have vanished, new challenges are emerging.

Administrators already know about certain contributors to low enrollment. For example, some community college students don’t do well in online courses. In fact, some students do so poorly in online classes that they drop out. Those that don’t drop out severely jeopardize their performance in subsequent semesters. (Given this, WCC’s strategic plan to pursue the creation of more online degree programs is questionable.)

Community college students typically need more instructor contact, more advising and more assistance to overcome seemingly simple barriers. Thrusting these students into a highly self-directed learning mode has been a disaster. Many of these people are first-generation college students. So they do not have family members who have already navigated the process they can turn to for support. Online education has provided in some cases, a temporary solution for instruction, it is clearly not the majority of students’ favorite approach to learning.

Technology gaps have also created barriers for community college students. Not having Internet access, enough connected devices, the right tools, appropriate learning spaces, adequate time and childcare support have all impacted students’ enrollment decisions. For those students, getting back into the classroom will be a tough sell.

Competing against the workforce

As the pandemic fades, community colleges must devise new strategies to combat low enrollment. They might include offering “fixed-price” tuition strategies that allow students to take between 12-18 credits for a single price. Additional support – like extra financial aid, childcare and book stipends, discounts on Internet services negotiated with local ISPs, fee waivers and discounts, low-cost or no-cost laptop programs and no-cost bus passes – may also make it easier for students to return.

The harder sell will be for students who opted not to enroll for the first time. Many of these people have already found employment. They have already decided that they’re better off in the workforce than they are in the classroom. Giving up that job or trying to work full-time while also going to school will prove to be surprisingly hard (and unrewarding) for many.

Community colleges (including WCC) must now find ways to sell the value of college degrees to these missing “adult learners.” Developing a simple ad campaign will not be enough to correct low enrollment. The Trustees must demand a consistent outreach strategy, significant and sustained communications, and a range of program options to regain enrollment.

Photo Credit: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles , via Flickr