Fall enrollment is all over the place this year. While some community colleges have seen their enrollment increase, most 2-year institutions have seen their enrollments drop. Reviving community college enrollment will be essential to aid in the recovery. But many schools are struggling with exactly how to make that happen.
In Michigan, community colleges have the benefit of the Futures for Frontliners program. This program offers free community college tuition for workers who stayed on the job during the opening months of the pandemic. In a nutshell, people who worked outside the home at least part-time between April 1 and June 30, 2020 may qualify for the program. Eligible workers must also be over the age of 18, and must not have a college degree. Participants can enroll in classes as early as January 2021, but may delay enrollment until later in the year.
The Futures for Frontliners program is one way to entice students into community college classrooms. According to the State, about 70,000 eligible participants have applied to the program so far. The State will accept applications until December 31, 2020. One reason the program is so popular is that it clearly addresses one significant obstacle to college enrollment: money. Low-wage earners – those most likely to enroll at a community college – lack the funds to attend school. Even though these prospective students may qualify for entirely or mostly free tuition, they may not know that.
Further, the cost of attendance is just one expense associated with going to school. Low wage workers spend most of their salaries on the very basics – food, housing, clothing and utilities. They may not have additional resources to pay for books, a computer and Internet access.
Reviving community college enrollment means supporting students
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo just expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility. The new guidelines include 75,000 community college students enrolled in career or technical education programs. Food insecurity is very real for community college students. When they must choose between necessities, attending classes simply isn’t realistic.
Fortunately, there are many currently available programs to help support students in their quests to escape poverty. Small changes, like making SNAP benefits available to community college students in CTE programs, can allow students to attend classes. Providing a laptop for students may be possible using CARES funds right now, but community colleges can seek community sponsors and device manufacturers to fund laptop purchases for income-qualified students when there is no CARES funding. Similarly, working with local Internet providers to secure low-cost or no-cost Internet access for income-qualified community college students can allow students to enroll. Yesterday, I wrote about a debt forgiveness program at Kalamazoo Valley Community College that will help return students to its classrooms.
Removing barriers boosts enrollment
If nothing else, these programs demonstrate that when you remove barriers to community college enrollment, people enroll. These approaches build up the student, the college and the community.
Projects like a health club for executives, a hotel and convention center, retail and office spaces can only act as a drag on community college finances when the chips are down. A community college needs to perform to its highest potential at the exact moment its students are struggling to eat or hang onto their housing. Helping students figure out how to pay for tuition, acquire the tools, supplies and services they need, or put food on their tables helps make their decision to attend classes easier.
We don’t need an administration that is fixated on diverting community revenues away from education in order to prop up a hotel or convention center. Or trying to rent out retail or office space when the world around some of us is caving in.
What we need least of all are trustees who are convinced that their highest purpose is to support the Administration no matter what. A community college is not about its administration.
It’s always about the students.
Photo Credit: US Department of Agriculture , via Flickr