Why is enrollment down, especially among students of color?

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Enrollment at community colleges for this fall was down 9.5% overall, 18.9% among freshmen and nearly 30% among freshman who are either Black, Hispanic or Native American, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Individual colleges have interrelated theories as to why this is the case, based on their own surveys and/or anecdotal feedback, many of them tracing back to the vast changes wrought during this year by the Covid pandemic.

The Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) conducted a survey back in April that sheds some light on what was on students’ minds at the time, based on 13,000 responses from students at 25 two-year schools across 10 states. It found that more than 80% of students across ethnic and racial backgrounds (including Black, Hispanic and White) felt supported by their colleges overall, and in specific areas like providing enough information to help with the transition, responding to instructor questions within 24 hours, and clearly explaining class expectations.

However, respondents reported challenges in fully engaging in online courses that hit students of color more frequently. More than one-third (36.1%) of Black students said they lacked access to a reliable computer, compared with 23.8% of Hispanic students and 14.2% of White students. Nearly half (46.4%) of Black students said they had to share a computer with other family members, along with 36.7% of Hispanic students and 23.3% of White students. And nearly one-third of Black (30.5%) and Hispanic (31.1%) students lacked access to reliable internet service, along with nearly one-quarter (24.6%) of White students.

More than 70% of students of all backgrounds said they were concerned about feeling isolated, more than two-thirds of Black (68.6%) and Hispanic (71.1%) students reported concerns about healthcare access (along with 59.6% of White students), and to varying degrees students of all backgrounds said they were concerned about food insecurity — 67.1% of Blacks, 59.9% of Hispanics and 44.3% of Whites.

‘A composite of things’

CCCSE Executive Director Linda Garcia suspects students continued to face many of the same challenges this fall, and she will know more after the center releases a follow-up survey in January that addresses those questions and others, such as about personal and family finances, concerns about social distancing, and whether or not online courses are synchronous. 

“I don’t think there’s one thing that’s occurring to make enrollment go down. I think it’s a composite of things,” Garcia says. “Colleges can loan out laptops, but that doesn’t really solve it if (students) go to their houses and they don’t have wi-fi. Plus, they’re dealing with their young children who have remote learning. … They might be taking care of family members who have fallen ill. Even though school is a priority for them, right now they just have to survive.”

At Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon, enrollment has fallen about 11% among for-credit FTEs and a bit higher overall, says President Lisa Avery, who is a member of the American Association of Community Colleges board of directors. Enrollment among the 13% of Linn-Benton students who are Hispanic has dropped about the same as the overall population, Avery says, although the matriculation among men generally has fallen more than women. She believes this, in part, because the school has needed to shrink enrollment in male-heavy career and technical education (CTE) programs due to the need for greater social distancing.

“When we talk with local businesses and community leaders, there’s a sense that men are just choosing to take any jobs right now, rather than investing in their education, for economic survival,” Avery says, possibly because K-12 students are learning online at home, and anecdotal evidence suggests that many mothers have left the workforce. “Men are not in college this fall, which is worrisome when you think about tomorrow’s workforce. … It is alarming when we worry about how to help our states rebound and get back to work.”

Linn-Benton’s sister colleges around the state have seen higher racial disparities in enrollment declines since Covid, Avery notes, and schools located in areas closest to major wildfires have seen more significant drops.

“We consider lower-income students to be at the greatest risk right now,” she says. “The kinds of jobs they have been able to use to get through school — service sector, restaurant and hospitality — those jobs have gone away and are not coming back in the short term.”

A mix of reasons

At St. Louis Community College (SLCC), headcount is down about 12% overall, 14% for first-time students, 18% among African-Americans, 19% among both Hispanics and Native Americans, and 18% among males. Black (31%) and Hispanic (25%) men represent the most “alarming” decline, according to Christine Davis, vice chancellor of student affairs. 

In a survey of SLCC students who did not return for the fall, the majority said changes in their personal and/or work schedule had led them to pull back.

“We asked whether there was anything we could have done to change your situation? They said no, it was personal,” Davis says.

Others said they were both uncomfortable coming back in person for Covid-related reasons, and/or did not find the online modality to be for them, she adds. 

SLCC has continued reaching out to those who did not return, Davis says.

“A lot of our students are essential workers, in restaurants or retail,” she says. “They’re on the front lines. We’re concerned when this is over, in terms of getting them back. We want to be that place they want to return to. We keep marketing and messaging and staying in touch.”

Staying in touch

In Texas, Austin Community College (ACC) has experienced an overall drop of 14% in first-time college students as compared with 2019, and the school remains concerned about lower enrollment of students of color, as well, says Shasta Buchanan, vice president of student affairs.

“When you think about the disruption of Covid, and how our underserved communities have been impacted — whether that’s been health-related or the loss of a job — there are so many things happening in the family,” she says. “We have students who have shared, ‘I need to be at work.’ When a family member has lost their job or fallen ill, they want to be there to help. With older students, as the head of a household, is education the first thing they’re thinking about? They need to take care of their family.”

The Austin Community College District has used online, hybrid and in-person instruction to appeal to students during the pandemic. (Photo: Austin Community College District)

The college has been reaching out to students and urging them to think about upskilling so they have the credentials they need to succeed during and after the pandemic. And ACC has tried to transition back to in-person with high-demand workforce programs that cannot be done remotely, Buchanan says. For first-year students and others who aren’t sure they could do virtual learning, Austin has provided loaner laptops and iPads, as well as providing access to campus wi-fi by appointment for those who need it.

The school also has made personal contact with students to see if they and their families have particular needs, such as food insecurity.

“We want to meet not just their collegiate needs but their basic needs,” Buchanan says. “You can’t be successful if you can’t eat. You can’t be successful if you don’t have the tools in terms of technology and access to the internet. There’s a blend of what’s happening to our students.”

Spring bounce?

At Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, enrollment fell 12% for fall semester overall but has jumped back for the spring, at one point in the process running 20% ahead of the previous year’s numbers, says Juan Gutierrez, director of marketing and public relations.

“Our district is very affluent in some areas and not in others, and we draw from neighboring districts,” he says. “It’s a big disparity. Some students are food insecure — we try to help with that. Some students are housing insecure. They may not have a hotspot or a computer. Some say, ‘I don’t like online learning. It’s not for me.’ And also, ‘I’m trying to keep my job and pay my bills.’”

Gutierrez believes that spring enrollment is bouncing back because students are realizing that the pandemic will stretch through the spring and perhaps into the summer, and they’re beginning to take a longer view.

“They’re realizing, ‘Hey, I need to get back to school,’” he says. “People are starting to get their heads above water. It’s difficult to call something a shock when it’s over a period of months, but it comes in waves. What we’re trying to do, as a college, is letting them know that we’re here when they need us.”

Linn-Benton’s Avery believes that Covid has created a class of economic refugees that colleges need to reach out to and enroll ASAP.

“We’re very worried about how to find them and make sure we have programs that are relevant and get them quickly working,” she says. “Given their struggles around housing, food and taking care of their kids’ education, I fully understand why they’re not involved in school right now. At the same time, I would hope that colleges would find a way to ensure they are engaged.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
is an education writer based in Illinois.