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Why community college enrollment drop should not be a surprise

Typically, recessions treat community colleges quite well. Community college enrollment rises when recent high school graduates can’t easily enter the job market, and as people retrain or “upskill.” The pandemic hasn’t been kind to community colleges. Nationally, enrollment is down by nearly 10%, and many two-year colleges have seen their enrollments drop by 20% or more. This should not come as a surprise. Here’s why.

Single parents

More than one in five women enrolled in a community college are also single parents. A community college provides the shortest, most cost-effective way to increase their standard of living. But these single parents already have two full-time jobs: earning a paycheck and taking care of their children. On a good day, it’s hard to find time to also take classes. During a pandemic, when childcare centers and schools are closed, it’s pretty much impossible. Earning a degree isn’t the only thing that’s overwhelming women, though.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than two million women left the US workforce between February and October 2020. In September alone, more than 850,000 women left (or lost) their jobs. Analysts attribute this shocking exodus to the complexities of educating school-age children during a pandemic.

Here’s another fact: 55% of community college students are women. For a community college the size of WCC, that means about 1,300 of its enrolled students are female single parents. Trying to manage work, childcare, home-schooling and taking college classes at the same time during a pandemic is unworkable. It’s no wonder women have given up.

Technology gaps drop community college enrollment

Online schooling relies on having the right technology in place at the right time. But technology is expensive. About 5.5% of households in Washtenaw County do not have Internet access at all. Two-thirds of Washtenaw County households don’t have minimally acceptable broadband access. In households that do have Internet, the kids may need to compete with Mom and Dad for bandwidth and access to connected devices. The only Internet access some people have is through their cell phones. Households may not have enough computers to go around, and if the pandemic affected household income, affording connectivity – no matter how necessary it is – may be a challenge. Amid an avalanche of competing priorities, college coursework may not make the grade.

Labor market instability

Many community college students work in low-wage or entry-level jobs. The opportunity to improve their standard of living is why they enroll. The pandemic has been an exceptionally bruising experience for low-wage workers. For some, their employers have been shuttered by executive or Health Department orders, leaving them to navigate the state’s byzantine unemployment system. Others have been required to work, risking exposure to COVID-19. Often, low-wage workers do not have access to health insurance or health care. So, contracting COVID-19 could mean lost work, lost wages and a mountain of medical bills. Going to school – which is ordinarily a positive move – may be too risky when money is tight or when a job can be lost without notice.

Recovering community college enrollment will take work

Community college enrollment hasn’t declined everywhere. In places where community college enrollment rose, staffs worked exceptionally hard to meet students where they were. Administrators made decisions about online class delivery early. They developed ways to provide students with what they needed most: tuition assistance, technology, clear communication or basic needs support.

To rebuild community college enrollment following the pandemic, administrators will need to find ways to support single parents. They’ll need to reach people who are living on the economic margins. Community college will have to find ways to support women who are trying to re-enter the job market. And students who don’t have childcare or the means to pay for an education. As a community, we need to move these people away from the margins, and meaningfully incorporate them into the economy.

It will require hard work and creativity from the community college administration. Washtenaw County taxpayers have already made a substantial investment in WCC’s administration. As we exit the pandemic, it is entirely reasonable for us to expect an equally substantial return.

Photo Credit: Lee Haywood , via Flickr