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Rebuilding enrollment means recognizing student needs

Community colleges around the country are working on return-to-school plans for the fall semester. But rebuilding enrollment will take more than simply offering in-person classes. That’s why two-year colleges are turning to inventive strategies to return students to the classrooms.

Free community college programs are cropping up around the nation. Michigan has two such programs designed to attract low-income workers and over-25 workers who have never earned a post-secondary degree. Attracting new students will help, but community colleges must also find ways to retain students who were on campus prior to the pandemic’s arrival.

Quinsigamond Community College in Massachusetts is rebuilding enrollment there by addressing the known needs of its students. QCC has set up a drive-through food pantry to help relieve food insecurity among its students. In addition, the school used more than $2.5M in federal aid to wipe out the debts of students who owed QCC money. The average erasure was worth more than $1,500.

Rebuilding enrollment by eliminating student debt

Community colleges are finding that debt is high on the list of reasons students don’t complete degree programs. It’s a tough question to answer, too. According to the US Department of Education, in 2017, 36% of full-time community college students also worked more than 20 hours per week.

Working and going to school compete hard for a student’s time. And plenty of evidence shows that the more hours a student works, the less likely the student is to complete a program of study. Not completing a program of study means that the student doesn’t gain the benefit of access to better paying work. And more often than not, it leaves the student in debt.

Most community colleges will not allow students who have outstanding balances on their account to enroll in classes. The debt becomes a significant barrier to returning to school. By wiping out student debt, QCC is giving its students a second chance to succeed.

Increasing enrollment by addressing student needs

The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) found that a large number of their students didn’t return to campus because they couldn’t afford the “support costs” of attending school. These extra costs – like transportation, childcare, textbooks and school supplies – were keeping BMCC students from re-enrolling. For BMCC, rebuilding enrollment meant finding ways to help students overcome these costs.

A MetroCard – which allows commuters to use New York City’s mass transit system – can cost more than $1,000 per year. While $84 per month may seem negligible to some, it’s a significant barrier for community college students who may work a minimum wage job. New York State’s minimum wage is currently set at $12.50 per hour, but students under the age of 18 may only earn $7.25. New York City is a high-cost municipality, so even at $12.50 per hour, most students don’t earn enough to pay for both their living expenses and school. 70% of BMCC students live in households with incomes lower than $30,000 per year.

To counter that, the Center for an Urban Future is proposing that CUNY – the governing body for New York’s community colleges – provide MetroCard passes, on-campus childcare, subsidies for books and supplies, and meals for community college students – like the meal programs offered to the city’s K-12 students. Rebuilding enrollment at BMCC and New York’s other community colleges will require eliminating the most common barriers to persistence. And for the most part, those barriers reflect some very basic needs.

Rebuilding enrollment by reducing administrative overhead

No one argues the point that community colleges are intended to serve low-income residents. Unfortunately, the people who run WCC understand very little about the realities of being poor. This lack of understanding carries over to the Trustees, who worry more about the size of their own tax bills than about the students they’re supposed to serve.

These Trustees push the real cost of the WCC administration’s unrestricted growth onto students who cannot afford it. This is beyond unfortunate, as they are the only body with the authority to address the College’s spending priorities. Their failure to demand cost control from the WCC Administration drives the cost of attendance up and drives students away from WCC. It also pushes the College into adopting hare-brained revenue-generation schemes that merely consume operational dollars and produce little in return.

Rebuilding enrollment at WCC will require examining the needs of its students and finding ways to reduce WCC’s administrative costs. The Trustees have a responsibility to avoid the need for additional revenue by controlling the institution’s costs. Declining enrollment will be the price we all pay for this lack of oversight.

Photo Credit: Mitchell Haindfield, via Flickr