Fingers crossed for the fall

Open house events last week at Mineral Area College in Missouri. (Photo: MAC)

Joe Gilgour, president of Mineral Area College (MAC) in rural Missouri, was very happy to see the hundreds of students who attended the college’s open house last Tuesday.

“They were happy and excited to come back to class, so it was very encouraging,” he said.

Now Gilgour is eagerly awaiting to see if those numbers will translate in enrollment increases. As of Thursday, the numbers were down -8% compared to the same time last year.

With the local economy humming and plenty of job opportunities available — not to mention other colleges and universities also recruiting area students — enrollment has been a challenge, Gilgour said.

“Everybody is looking for employees. If you want a job right now, you got your pick of what’s out there,” he said.

But Gilgour is optimistic about the college’s amped-up efforts to connect with new and returning students by August 24, which is when the fall term officially begins.

“We’re hopeful,” he said.

Common concerns

Gilgour’s concerns and MAC’s challenges mirror what some community college leaders are feeling as the beginning of the fall term is around the corner. Among the dozen of presidents and vice presidents interviewed last week by Community College Daily, there is excitement about students returning to in-person classes, though health concerns over Covid variants, debates over masks and vaccine mandates, and, of course, related politics have added yet another potential barrier. 

Even without the reemergence of Covid concerns, the college leaders expressed that the growing post-Covid economy is prompting many potential two-year college students to opt for jobs instead of pursuing higher education, which is the typical enrollment pattern for community colleges in a strong economy.

In the days leading up to the start of the fall semester, some colleges have projected slight increases and some anticipate slight decreases. Many community colleges hope to at least retain their enrollment numbers from last fall, after seeing huge drops in fall 2019 due to Covid.

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Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) has seen a promising sign among increases in applications. However, it remains to be seen if that translates into enrollments. It’s not quite there yet. As of last Thursday, the college was about -7% to -7.5% below last fall’s headcount, according to Ryan Farley, associate vice president of enrollment management at the Utah college.

But he is staying positive.

“We’ve had a strong couple of weeks. We’re rolling; we are seeing that deficit close,” he said.

For example, the new student headcount is down only -2.5% from this time last year, and he feels confident the gap will close by the start of school on August 24.

Using lessons learned

Like other colleges, Salt Lake is implementing the lessons it learned over the pandemic. The main one: Students really appreciate virtual services. So the college is retaining things like its virtual campus tour, admissions applications walkthrough, completing the student aid process, new student orientation and registration appointments, where students can just enter a Zoom room and chat with someone from the college.

SLCC’s biggest challenge is with new and continuing adult students, Farley said. That is partly due to the state’s robust economy.

“Students are picking up more hours, the economy is chugging along and that is impacting the amount of schooling they can do,” Farley said.

It’s also likely that students who enrolled at SLCC during the pandemic are now opting to attend four-year institutions, like the University of Utah, he noted.

A shift in demographics is also affecting enrollment, Farley said. The state has seen a significant increase in its Latinx population, who historically attend college at lower rates. As a result, SLCC — where 56% of students are the first in their families to attend college — has focused on working with K-12 schools to encourage students and their families to consider college.

While federal recovery funds have helped, many students continue to face nonfinancial challenges, Farley said. For example, a significant number of older learners still have to take care of family members, such as children and parents, which affects their ability to attend college. And the recent spikes in Covid cases due to variants is also making some people leery of returning to campus, despite SLCC’s best efforts to create a safe and healthy environment for the classes.

Spreading the message

Mineral Area College, which is about an hour’s drive from St. Louis, also faces competition from other colleges and universities in the region, noted Gilgour. To distinguish itself from other institutions, MAC has focused on the message of being affordable, he said. It emphasizes that students can save significantly by attending MAC for two years and then transferring to a four-year college to complete a baccalaureate.

MAC also started more online options for orientation. And last fall it started men’s and women’s soccer teams that has brought in 50 students this fall.

In addition, MAC is working with business and industry in the area to encourage them to offer tuition assistance for their workers. But it is still finding a stigma that two-year colleges are not as good as four-year institutions, Gilgour said. Many of those businesses offer financial help to workers who attend a four-year institution. He wants to tap that for his college.

“There’s a lot of potential,” Gilgour said.

Other community colleges expect to see enrollment increases due in part to training opportunities that are being provided for free.

Oakland Community College in Michigan attributes expected growth in new enrollment to the state’s new Futures for Frontliners and Reconnect programs, which provide free tuition to qualifying adults.

The college is currently up year-over-year for fall, but, as with summer, officials expect it will plateau. Conservatively, the college expects to finish flat compared to last year, with a stretch goal of seeing a slight increase of .5% to 3%, said Chancellor Peter Provenzano, Jr.

Finding ways to connect

Arkansas State University-Mountain Home (ASUMH) hopes it may exceed last fall’s enrollment by Wednesday, when classes begin, said Chancellor Robin Myers. He credited the exceptional work among all department staff, from how they reached out to new students, to “data mining” on past students to try to bring them back.

The college has used email, social media, phone calls and personal networking to connect with students. Myers’ leadership team asked staff to recruit when they were out and about this summer, whether they were attending church, shopping, eating out or enjoying recreational activities.

“If you meet someone who you think ought to be in college, talk to them about it and ask them to get in contact with us,” Myers said he told employees.

A common challenge among many community colleges across the country that ASUMH faces is connecting with recent high school graduates, especially those who graduated in spring 2020. The college didn’t have the usual contacts it would have had with prospective students as they approached graduation, Myers said.

As in most areas across the U.S., the local economy in ASUMH’s service area is strong, and employers are looking for workers. The college has had some success with its training programs, especially for emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Some state grants providing students financial assistance have prompted a significant jump in applications, Myers said. The EMT program usually includes seven or eight students; when the college advertised the grant assistance for the program, some 60 people expressed interest. 

As a result, the college enrolled about 20 students in the program for the summer, and another 20 for the fall class, Myers said.

“What it told me is that people are really ready to reengage and are looking for something that will help them move from where they are right now to someplace that will offer a better opportunity,” he said.

About the Author

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