Community College Enrollment Plunges During COVID-19 Pandemic
School was going well for Megan Knight during her first two semesters at Daytona State College. She’d managed to maintain a part-time job at a restaurant alongside her nursing coursework, and planned to complete the two-year program on time. Then, last March, the pandemic hit, and for the first time, she didn’t pass her classes. With no end in sight to virtual learning, she decided not to enroll for the fall semester. Instead, she picked up additional hours at her job, putting her studies on pause.
“Nursing is very hands-on, so when we’re not able to be hands-on, it really hinders the education that we’re getting,” Knight, 23, told Teen Vogue. “I don’t do well with online environments. A lot of it has ended up being, we just have to self-teach. We just have a PowerPoint we’re supposed to follow.”
Alexa Velez, 19, a student at Los Angeles Southwest College, had a similar experience. She too stopped attending classes after they shifted to online. “It started getting really difficult for me because I’m a physical learner,” she said. “I like to learn when I’m in class, with classmates and professors. If not, I tend to get distracted easily.” When bills began to pile up, she wondered if she’d be better off dropping out entirely.
At community colleges across the country, enrollment rates have greatly decreased. For the fall 2020 semester, enrollment dropped by 10.1%, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center — a percentage that exceeds the enrollment rates for other higher-education institutions. Among freshmen, enrollment declined by a striking 13.1% compared to the previous year.
Community colleges have long served as a critical gateway for disadvantaged students, offering an affordable, flexible way to earn a college degree. As low-income Americans of color continue to foot the burden of the twin public health and economic crises caused by COVID-19, the strain on community college enrollment will only get worse.
Historically, recessions have led to a spike in community college enrollment, as people seek to gain new skills in a troubled job market. But this pandemic has been different. Online learning has been a challenge for students and institutions across the board, but has been particularly difficult for community colleges, which do not benefit from the same resources as four-year institutions.
“We know that the people being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic are low-income communities and communities of color,” said Christina Royal, the president of Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts. “Community colleges serve a greater share of those particular groups of people demographically, therefore it’s to be expected that our enrollment would suffer.”
Advocates for education equity fear that the implications of declining enrollment will outlast the pandemic. “I think of this as two tragedies in one,” said higher-education consultant Mark Huelsman. “First, for people who don’t enroll, who will miss their opportunity to develop their skills, this will have long-term ramifications for their career.” And for those who do end up attending, either now or when the pandemic subsides, “They’re going to be facing institutions that are experiencing deep budget cuts, which, for community colleges, can be devastating in a way they are not for other state institutions or flagship colleges.”
For students like Knight and Velez, difficulty staying focused in online classes was enough to make them question their decision to stay in school. But for others, internet and computer access have also made it difficult to keep up with coursework. In a survey of roughly 13,000 students from 25 community colleges in 10 states, conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, more than a third of Black students surveyed said they lacked access to a reliable computer, compared to 24% of Hispanic or Latinx students and 14% of white students. Nearly half of Black students surveyed shared a computer with family members, as well as 37% of Latinx or Hispanic students and 23% of white students.
The challenges of online learning are just one reason behind the drop in enrollment — particularly when it comes to high-school seniors. Remote learning left high-school students “just less engaged” post-grad, especially in low-income communities, said Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. “For students who come from the middle class and know how to navigate the college process, well, their parents can provide that support,” he added. “For students who don’t have that support at home, they rely on [getting] that advice from high school.”
Ally Levy, co-director of college inquiry programming at College Access: Research & Action (CARA), a program that assists low-income students with college enrollment, echoed that sentiment. “Counselors are working double time, but it just remains really hard without being able to find students in the lunchroom and classroom, and not being able to grab a student to talk [in-person],” she said.
For many students, economic hardship complicated enrollment plans. According to the UT-Austin survey, nearly two-thirds of working students lost hours due to the pandemic; 7% lost their jobs completely. Difficulty keeping up with assignments and internet access often took a backseat to more pressing needs such as food and household expenses. Sixty-seven percent of Black students surveyed reported concern over having enough to eat, along with 60% of Latinx or Hispanic students and 44% of white students; 70% of Black students expressed worry over being able to pay rent and utility bills, along with more than 65% of Latinx or Hispanic students and more than half of white students.
In the Colorado system, for example, Garcia pointed to stark enrollment disparities between campuses that serve low-income communities of color, and those with whiter, more affluent student bodies. “It’s in our most diverse communities that we saw the greatest decline.”
With that in mind, student advocates fear that students who do not enroll because of the current crisis will not come back once it’s over. “Even before the pandemic, when students dropped out, their likelihood of coming back was less and less,” said Linda Garcia, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at UT-Austin, and one of the survey’s authors. “When you add the pandemic, it’ll amplify that. Community college serves students who are working. A lot of folks have lost jobs; these folks are trying to survive, pay rent or a mortgage, and trying to find financial support. So paying for college might not be the priority.”
The Trump administration’s disinterest in improving college access left community colleges and low-income students particularly vulnerable. “There was no initiative to make community colleges more affordable or more resilient to recessions,” said Huelsman. “These are institutions that enroll 40% of American students. That’s a plurality of people attending higher education, and they’re last in the trough for federal funding; they don’t receive large research grants. They’re at the mercy of economic conditions. We’ve known this — this is not a thing that just happened upon us in the recession and pandemic.”
Royal, of Mount Holyoke, is optimistic that the Biden administration will do more to support community colleges. “We have a first lady who’s a community college professor, who really understands the value of community college education and public higher education in general,” she said. “What we’ll want to watch is what the investment looks like in Pell [Grants], and where the conversation goes with free community college or loan forgiveness.”
Joe Garcia fears that, even with progressive policies and attention to education access, the damage has already been done. “What’s most troubling is, I spent an entire career trying to figure out how to get more students of color and low-income students into college and completing college,” he told me. “And the pandemic, even though we’ve been narrowing that gap over the years, is again going to increase that gap, and it’s not something to easily fix.”
Karina Piser is a journalist currently living in New York. Until 2019, she was based in Paris, reporting on religion, national identity, and immigration.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.