Strategies colleges used to increase enrollment this fall

The Community College of Baltimore County added more in-person classes for math, science and other programs this fall, which has helped to increase enrollments. (Photo: CCBC)

While most community colleges have seen a dip in fall enrollments, a sliver of them have actually seen their numbers increase – and it wasn’t by happenstance.

To date, public two-year colleges nationally have seen fall enrollment drop an average of 7.5%. (The National Student Clearinghouse is expected this week to publish updated fall enrollments.) But institutions such as the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College in Virginia and Edison State Community College in Ohio have bucked the trend with enrollment increases this fall.

The presidents of those institutions credit myriad efforts to not only retain students but to bring back those who withdrew this spring, as well as attract graduating high school students and four-year college students weighing their options during the pandemic. Those efforts range from calling their students on the phone to check in with them, to expanding in-person classes for those who learn better in the classroom or need to use the college’s resources.

One-third of students stop out

Like nearly all of the nation’s community colleges, the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) on March 16 closed its campuses and shifted to mainly remote and online learning. And like most community colleges, the Maryland college already had extensive experience in offering courses online.

But this was the COVID pandemic. There was no way of telling whether students would stay in their courses. As it turned out, about 4,200 of CCBC’s 15,000 credit students withdrew by the end of the spring term.

“Almost a third of the students could not handle the switch from in-seat to remote,” said CCBC President Sandra Kurtinitis.

The reasons are ones most colleges are familiar with: many students didn’t have the technology or required skills or high-speed internet access needed to do their work. And many of those students came from home environments that are not conducive to learning.

Kurtinitis then took a bold, multi-pronged approach that was mission-centered. First, CCBC distributed half of its $9.2 million from federal CARES Act funds directly to students affected by the pandemic, as required, including those students who dropped out in the spring. Then the college funneled every funding stream – federal money (including the remaining CARES Act funds), state money (such as Maryland Higher Education Commission scholarships), institutional money (like the college’s Opportunity Grants) – into one pot for an effort to make college tuition-free for as many students as possible. It was a central piece in the college’s marketing campaign to encourage students to enroll at CCBC this fall.

“We put everything in there and the tuition-free initiative just took off,” Kurtinitis said, noting CCBC had to hire additional financial aid office staff to handle the volume of interest in the program.

More in-person classes

The third part of the plan was to promote more access to in-person learning. CCBC decided to continue to offer 80% of its classes and services online and remotely. But it set aside 20% of classes to be in-person if students wanted to enroll in them. That includes not only career and technical education courses, which typically have a hands-on learning component, but also courses in math, composition and science, Kurtinitis said.

“When we had a third of students who basically tell us ‘We can’t do it this way,’ that meant we had to figure out how we could support all of our students with multiple modalities,” Kurtinitis said. Many CCBC students, and students at other community colleges, prefer coming to campus because it provides them with the atmosphere and technology to learn better, she said.

CCBC tested its 80/20 format this summer. It ran about 70 in-seat classes, which included very specific safety protocols, such as mandatory masks, temperature checks and social distancing, Kurtinitis said. Since it worked well, CCBC adapted the same approach for the fall. About 4,000 students have opted for in-seat courses this term.

Like most colleges, CCBC expected to see a dip in enrollment this fall. Instead, the college is currently at about the same enrollment as last fall and 6% above enrollment-to-budget. In addition, about 7,000 students are attending CCBC tuition-free, with another 4,000 to 5,000 students receiving some financial benefits, Kurtinitis said. If the college didn’t expand its in-person options and tuition-free effort, the college would have likely lost another 4,000 students, she added.

The work wasn’t easy, Kurtinitis said, noting that it was a team effort across administrators, faculty and staff. Although some were skeptical that it would work, the focus on serving students was the impetus to find solutions, she said.

“”We have to find ways to serve the people we have,” she said.

Dual enrollment as the driver

Edison State Community College in Piqua, Ohio, also has seen its efforts in the spring and summer yield an uptick in enrollment this fall. The college’s credit-hour enrollment is up 12 percent so far, with headcount up 7 percent.

“We hit it out of the park,” said President Doreen Larson, who noted that last fall the college also saw enrollment jump about 9 percent.

Larson credits the college’s business plan for positioning itself well during the pandemic. It focuses mainly on two elements: the College Credit Plus program (a state-funded, statewide dual-enrollment program) and embedding more work-and-learn experiences into its workforce development efforts. With College Credit Plus, Edison State has worked closely with the 45 high schools that have students dually enrolled. With the workforce programs, the college emphasized to its business partners the need to keep their workers’ skills current, noting that the state could provide some funding for that.

With those two approaches, Edison State felt if there was a downturn in the economy, it would be in good shape with its established partnerships through College Credit Plus and workforce development programs.

“That has turned out to be correct,” Larson said.

Job security and a pay raise

Another key factor to Edison State’s success this fall is its approach to staff and faculty during COVID. From the very beginning of the pandemic in March, Larson decided not to furlough or lay off anyone. If the college had to tap its reserves to make that happen, then it would, she said.

“We were really upfront about that. Every communication I had regarding COVID always ended with ‘And please remember we are not laying off, we are not furloughing. We need everybody.'”

“We didn’t want anyone worrying about that. I really think that’s what made the difference. People were able to do their jobs and do them better,” Larson said, noting that staff and faculty face more work because operating remotely took more time.

In fact, everyone also received a 2.5% raise. Edison State’s board was concerned whether the college could afford the raises if things tanked further, but Larson stuck with it. She emphasized the college could cover it with its reserves, noting the point was to alleviate any additional stress on employees, and it would serve to motivate people to do their best.

“What do you have reserves for if not for 2020?” Larson added. “We didn’t act like a college in crisis, so we didn’t get a response like a college in crisis.”

Doubling down in dual enrollment

Another strategy that paid off for Edison State was to provide full-tuition scholarships for all graduating high school seniors in the college’s service area and College Credit Plus partner high schools, regardless of their level of participation in the program.

“That’s our whole motivation behind College Credit Plus: We get families to experience the quality of Edison State,” Larson said.

Larson credits the scholarship for raising the number of recently graduated high school students enrolling at Edison State this fall by 250 students. Nearly half of all students at the college are dually enrolled.

“It just absolutely works,” Larson said.

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As a result, the college made College Credit Plus central to its operations. Edison State has targeted its resources, and even shifted around staffing, to make sure the program is strong, Larson said.

“We were adding College Credit Plus students in the second and third week into the term because high school wasn’t back in session yet,” she said. “That workload was really huge on our end and on the high school end.”

In addition to typical college-bound students, the program also saw an increase in students who would probably enter the job market out of college, Larson said. But because job prospects were limited due to the pandemic, they decided to enroll in some career and technical education programs, she said.

Looking toward spring, Edison State plans to add more face-to-face sections for courses in math and other programs because some faculty are concerned they are not having enough time with students, Larson said.

“The success of our fall term is motivating to everybody,” she said.

Larson also gave kudos to Randy Gardner, chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education, for being transparent in communicating with college leaders. Although state-funded colleges had some cuts this fall, he is assuring them there are no additional cuts coming so far, she said.

“He’s done a really good job of keeping that positive culture in higher ed,” she said.

Turning to phones

In rural Virginia, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College (DSLCC) saw enrollment this summer increase by 22%, and this fall it is up by more than 6% percent so far, with some late-starting classes and dual-enrollment still open for registration.

DSLCC used an old-school method to connect with its students that several other community colleges around the country also used: It called its students.

In March when the college went completely online, its coaches and advisors tried to call all registered students every two weeks to check in with them, said President John Rainone. They are still doing that this fall. Aside from gauging what students need, the phone calls “put a human voice” to the college that students valued to hear, he said.

“It really assisted us in connecting more with students,” said Rainone, noting that he is considering keeping some of the processes after the pandemic.

Announcing plans early

DSLCC also announced its fall plans early – in late May/early June – which Rainone said helped to boost enrollment. Doing so gave students and families stability and confidence in knowing the college was a safe option at a time when four-year institutions hadn’t indicated their plans, he said.

“We noticed our enrollment continued to go up immediately after that,” said Rainone, who serves on the American Association of Community Colleges board of directors.

“Students can get a job in weeks and not years,” Rainone said.

DSLCC’s typical nursing enrollment is 40 students; so far the college has received more than 80 applications in nursing and accepted 50, which was the maximum it can take. DSLCC this fall has the largest number of nursing students between its registered nursing and practical nurse programs in 20 years, Rainone said.

About 70% of classes this fall are virtual, with 30% in a hybrid format for programs such as welding, nursing and forestry, which require a hands-on component. The college also added a few more 12-week courses to the schedule.

Holding steady

For this fiscal year, DSLCC prepared for a 5% budget cut, but currently it looks like it won’t happen, Rainone said.

“We were prepared not only for flat enrollment, but we were also preparing for additional cuts,” he said, noting the last thing he wanted to do was cut positions.

In fact, the college needs to hire for various openings, but it can’t because of a statewide hiring freeze, Rainone said.

“We have positions in IT, in financial aid, in the registrar’s office – key positions that we need to fill,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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