Fall enrollments at community colleges appear to be fairly flat so far, with a few colleges seeing some upticks and a few seeing small drops.
But enrollments at a few two-year colleges have bounced back – in some cases even more than expected – and college officials often found a silver lining in the strategies they established to replace or patch long-held procedures and traditions upended by the pandemic. Many of those changes have proved so beneficial they are likely to stay in place.
“We’re a small school, and we’ve always prided ourselves in knowing our students, but we doubled down on those connections, and we encouraged the students to look beyond the pandemic and engage in their future,” said Kyle Wagner, president of Northeastern Technical College (NETC), which serves three rural, low-income counties along the northeast corner of South Carolina.
“Our enrollment is up beyond what it was prior to the pandemic, and we know it’s a result of the support systems we put in place to help keep our current students on track through this tough time, along with a new recruitment philosophy that promotes the idea that ‘college is for everyone,’” he said.
Several colleges like NETC have reported enrollment increases compared to last fall, though they haven’t reached pre-pandemic numbers. Others, however, such as most of the community colleges in Mississippi, showed continuing declines in enrollment.
A few community colleges, like those in Colorado and El Paso, Texas, saw smaller drops than they expected this fall. Colleges in Colorado saw a decline of less than 1%, much smaller than the nearly 10% drop in 2020.
“We saw excellent gains in enrollment, but we’re not exactly where we want to be,” Carlos Amaya, interim vice president of student and enrollment services at El Paso Community College, told a local news outlet.
At Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, enrollment has bounced back somewhat, too, but not quite to 2019 levels. The school enrolled 3,385 students by late September, up 4.2% from last year but still down from the 3,611 who were enrolled in 2019.
NETC has seen enrollment growth over the past few years due to an increased focus on student retention and the recruitment of high school students for dual enrollment, Wagner said, noting that they believe involving high school students in college early “provides a pipeline for new college students following high school graduation.”
During the pandemic, staff and faculty connected with students regularly to reassure them, particularly if they spotted a troubling trend. NETC provided students with free internet and laptop loans to those who needed them and had special “Zoom rooms” for current and future students and their families for additional assistance.
“Overall, our goal was as to get students to focus on the time when the pandemic was over and there were opportunities to move on with their lives,” Wagner said. “The ‘Believe in Yourself’ campaign we launched didn’t just provide solutions to the problems the pandemic provided, it told them we would support them as they thought about their future.”
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The college also developed a special summer session this year aimed at “invisible students” in high school with GPAs ranging from 2.0 to 2.9, fearing they were vulnerable to drift away from education, particularly with the disruptive high school years they have had. All 121 students participating this summer signed up for dual-enrollment courses. NETC has nearly tripled its dual enrollment in the past five years and considerably during the pandemic by prioritizing it.
“A lot of high schools focus on high-achieving students who will eventually transfer to four-year colleges or universities, but unfortunately many high school students don’t fit into that mold,” Wagner said. “We call them the ‘invisible students.’ And as a technical college, we are making these invisible students our priority.”
The strategies appear to be working. Enrollment at the college, which dropped 3% in 2020, was up by 34% this year and at its highest level ever.
Indian Hills also focused on the individual student.
“Overall, I think we just had a heightened awareness that students needed special attention and we worked extra hard to make sure we were addressing their needs as quickly as possible,” said Joni Kelley, executive dean of enrollment services and registrar.
The college was in regular contact with current and prospective students beyond what they would normally do – reminding them about deadlines, offering help with financial aid and “just reaching out to see how they were coping with the changes caused by Covid,” she said.
The college also held a new “Step on to Campus” event in August for students and parents to check on financial aid, purchase books, locate their classrooms, tour residence halls and ask questions. It was heavily promoted with postcards and on social media and on the college’s website.
“We made it a very celebratory event and everyone, including staff, were excited to have an opportunity to come together,” Kelley said. “It was in August and the bulk of it was outside, so we felt more comfortable. This was a new event, but we plan to do it again – multiple times next summer.”
While most community colleges in Mississippi reported declines in fall enrollments, three institutions saw increases, including Mississippi Delta Community College, where officials offered transportation to students and doubled down on contacting those who were registering late or had not registered.
Windward Community College in Kāne‘ohe, Hawaii, created a shorter, eight-week course about Hawaiian culture for its Hawaiian studies degree and another in its business degree program. It also developed new short-term certificates in some of its most popular programs.
Counselors worked more extensively with prospects and enrollees, and the college had a heavier than usual presence on social media and offered additional scholarship opportunities, a college spokesperson said.
Windward’s enrollment is up 3.5% this year to 2,379, but still below the enrollment of 2,524 in 2019.
Finding the time
Colleges like Windward worked to meet students’ personal needs and make it easier for them to move into higher education with a schedule and load they could manage given the disfunction of the pandemic and changes in jobs and lifestyles.
“We understand there are great pressures on people’s time,” said Tina Hoxie, associate provost and dean of student affairs at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in Michigan. “We now have a number of programs that remove cost as a barrier to education, but finding time can still be an obstacle for many students who want to start or come back to finish their education. We’re scheduling classes that are more convenient and allow people to keep moving forward, even if it is through two classes a semester.”
GRCC offered courses in other formats that have proven popular with students looking to schedule around home and work responsibilities, including in-person classes, hybrid classes, real-time virtual classes and traditional online classes. It also has heavily promoted Michigan Reconnect, a new state scholarship program that provides free in-district tuition for those ages 25 and older who don’t already have a college degree.
The college’s enrollment is up by 4.4% this fall with 12,685 students, a number that could increase during a second session of the semester. Enrollment still lags 4.8% behind the pre-pandemic 2019 level. However, summer enrollment this year passed 2019 summer enrollment by nearly 6%.
“We are expecting enrollment to continue to rise and surpass 2019, possibly by next year, but also recognize we continue to live in difficult times and many people are still facing challenges as they return to their education,” said Communications Director Dave Murray.