New college students struggled last fall

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A new report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement sheds more details about the impact of the pandemic on first-time students at community colleges, which have seen staggering drops in enrollments across the board, but especially among students of color and first-time college students.

First, some not-so-bad news culled from the center’s survey administered last fall: More than three-quarters of entering students said the pandemic didn’t prompt them to change their college plans. According to the report, 77% indicated they would stay at their college, while 3% said they would attend a different community college; 13% said they planned to attend a four-year institution, and 7% reported they didn’t plan to attend any college.

The pandemic also didn’t appear to sway students’ minds much on attending full-time or part-time, or their plan of study. The report noted 86% of survey participants said their decision about whether to enroll part-time or full-time wasn’t impacted by the pandemic. And 75% did not change their plans about their program, major or pathway of study due to the health crisis.

The data in the report are based on a fall survey of 5,193 entering students across 38 colleges. The center noted that it wasn’t able to survey entering students who delayed beginning college or opted not to enroll because of Covid.

Well-known challenges

And now for the bad news, much of which reinforces previous reports on the struggles community college students currently face.

Family care during the pandemic is financially stretching students, but especially women, according to the report. For female students with children living with them and depending on them for their care, 43% reported that their financial situation was worse than before the pandemic, compared to 34% of male students in similar circumstances.

The report also noted that Native American students, Black or African-American students, and Hispanic students were more likely to report having trouble keeping up with their coursework due to a lack of childcare than were White students.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated the already typical struggles that community college students face in juggling classes with work and family obligations. Now, more than ever, these students need our support,” Linda García, the center’s executive director, said in a statement.

The survey also reaffirms other challenges that community colleges have reportedly faced during the pandemic, such as access to technology. For example, about 29 percent of respondents reported having unreliable Internet access or no Internet access at home.

Childcare also has affected many community college students’ ability to do their coursework, especially among students of color. Nearly one-third of Black students (30%) and Native American students (31%) of community college students with children said they had trouble completing homework and other assignments because they didn’t have adequate care for their children or other dependents.

The report shows that older learners at community colleges have struggled financially to stay in class, more so than younger students. More than 26% of students age 25 and older indicated they were struggling to pay for college due to the pandemic, compared to 16 percent of traditional-age students, according to the center, which is located at the University of Texas at Austin.

Unaware of assistance

Although most community colleges across the country have increased efforts to provide their students with various services and referrals, it appears a significant number of students are unaware of that. For example, 57 percent of participating students said they didn’t know of support services – such as emergency aid, food pantries and mental health services – their college had to help them cope with such stress related to the pandemic. Just under 40% said they were aware of the services.

“As communication has become more difficult in the virtual world, colleges may need to be more intentional around messaging about available services that can help students cope with stresses caused by and exacerbated by the pandemic,” the report said.

The Trellis Foundation funded the study.

About the Author

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