Opting for community college during the pandemic

Students enjoy the fall at Northern Essex Community College. (Photo: NECC)

Kaylin Francoeur, who graduated this year from Amesbury High School in Massachusetts, was all set to attend a four-year private college this fall. But with the uncertainty the pandemic presented for first-year college students, she changed her plans.

Francoeur enrolled at Northern Essex Community College, and she says it is working out so well that she will likely continue on for an associate degree before transferring to a four-year college or university.

Kaylin Francoeur

“I didn’t plan to go to a community college, but I have no regrets,” Francoeur says. “I don’t feel like I’m missing out. My friends who went away to college didn’t like it.”

Starting at Northern Essex has allowed Francoeur to explore majors — she started in a health field and recently switched to business management — and stay safe at home. Her goal is to build her photography business, Kaylin Francoeur Photography, which she started while she was in high school, and she believes a business degree will help her do that.

Once she has her associate degree, Francoeur plans to transfer to a four-year college or university for a bachelor’s degree, and, after her experience at Northern Essex, she is looking at public universities, possibly the University of Massachusetts (UMass) at Lowell.

An issue of cost

Francoeur’s friend, Hayden Ayotte, who was planning to study business at UMass at Amherst, also decided to switch plans and start at Northern Essex this fall.

Hayden Ayotte

“When I heard the first semester at UMass was going to be online, I knew it would be cheaper to take courses at Northern Essex. My friends are paying twice as much,” he says.

Before committing to Northern Essex, Ayotte talked with advisors at UMass who assured him that his Northern Essex courses would transfer in. He plans to attend Northern Essex for one year and then transfer to UMass Amherst as a sophomore.

“I’m paying for most of my school, so I wanted to make the best financial decision,” he says.

Steady freshmen enrollment

While the number of recent Amesbury High School graduates who chose to start at Northern Essex increased this fall, from 16 in the fall of 2019 to 19 this fall, the percentage of recent high school graduates who chose to start at the community college remained steady overall. Approximately 14% of the fall enrollment at Northern Essex is recent high school graduates, similar to the past three years.

“We expected to see more recent high school graduates choosing to start at a community college, like Kaylin and Hayden,” says Bill Heineman, the college’s vice president of academic and student affairs. “I think what happened is that many students took a gap year instead, delaying their college education.”

Heineman cautions that research indicates that students who interrupt their education often get permanently sidetracked or at least significantly delayed in earning a college credential.

“We strongly urge recent high school grads to maintain their linkage to education, even if it means just taking a course or two while they wait for the pandemic to end,” he says.

Nationally, community colleges, on average, have seen a drop in enrollment, especially among first-time students. Education advocates had expected to see an uptick due to the pandemic, but that did not happen with fall enrollments. Leaders are hopeful it may change in the spring.

About the Author

Ernie Greenslade
is director of public relations at Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts.