Assessing Covid’s impact on college campuses

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At El Paso Community College (EPCC) in Texas, enrollments this spring are down -12.5%, following a -9.5% drop in the fall. Among its first-time-in-college students, enrollments dipped -12% this spring, compared to -31% in the fall.

But what especially worries President William Serrata is the pandemic’s hit on Hispanic/Latinx students, who comprise about 85% of the student body at the college. EPCC over the past few years had seen an increase in the number of Hispanic/Latinx students attending college and attaining a credential. Serrata fears the pandemic could erase those gains.

“There will be a significant period of time before we are able to catch back up,” said Serrata, who also serves as board chair of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Among Serrata’s concerns is what that will mean for residents and the local workforce when the economy rebounds. After the Great Recession, about 99% of the 12 million new jobs across the U.S. went to individuals with degrees and credentials, he said. Only about 80,000 went to individuals with a high school diploma or less.

With fewer students attending EPCC, especially first-time college students, they will have difficulty finding family-sustaining jobs when the local economy heats up. And the longer they stay out of college after completing high school, they are less likely to go to college.

“Now is not the time to be saying ‘I’m going to put off higher education,’” Serrata said during a virtual panel discussion Tuesday on the effects of the pandemic on higher education. The event was held by Brookings.

A familiar concern

Many community colleges across the country have similar concerns. National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data show an average -10% drop in enrollment last fall at public two-year colleges, with freshmen seeing a -21% decline, noted Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center. There’s also bad news among demographic categories.

“Part of what’s behind the community college declines is the larger declines among low-income students, and among Black, Latinx and indigenous students — far larger than other populations,” Shapiro said.

Serrata said he is hopeful that enrollments may edge up in the fall as the economy improves. Historically, there is an 18-month lag at community colleges from the end of a recession to when enrollments increase, he said.

But much of that will depend on the distribution of the Covid vaccine, he noted. Community college students, in general, don’t appear to want to take most of their classes online, so opening more in-person classes will be key to their return, Serrata said. If vaccinations take longer, the rebound could happen next spring, but no later than fall 2022, he said.

A federal boost

Getting students to enroll again will also require finding ways to financially help them, said Melanie Muenzer, chief of staff at the U.S. Education Department’s Office of the Under Secretary. She noted the Biden administration’s push to provide two years of free community college, significantly increase the Pell Grant maximum award and invest more in career and technical education (CTE) programs. She added that providing access to undocumented students is also a priority.

CTE is an area in which EPCC and some other community colleges saw enrollments increase in the fall and spring, Serrata said.

“We’re seeing that students want to enroll in programs that lead them directly into the workforce,” he said.

But one of the challenges is that ramping up those programs is expensive. EPCC has invested about $125 million across its five campuses to increase CTE offerings, which resulted in enrollment increases in those programs, he said.

College finances

Federal pandemic relief funding has been crucial to EPCC and other two-year institutions. The Texas college has received about $120 million total in federal assistance through relief funding, with about $50 million going directly to help students. EPCC used its CARES Act funds to assist students, faculty and staff to shift to a remote learning environment. It helped to buy 3,700 devices, 2,400 laptops, over 850 hotspots and just under 200 web cameras, document cameras and printers.

Serrata said he hopes ED will provide more flexibility in how colleges may use higher education funds provided through the latest relief measure. The department will soon issue more guidance on the American Rescue Plan Act funds, as well as additional guidance on how colleges can use funds from the CARES Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), said Muenzer, who previously served on the board at Lane Community College in Oregon.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.