Focused on Hispanic student enrollments

Mayerley Astacio is an engineering student at Northern Essex Community College and also a student ambassador at the Massachusetts college, helping English language learners navigate their education during the pandemic. (Photo: NECC)

Before the pandemic, Hispanic student enrollments were booming at undergraduate institutions across the country, including Northern Essex Community College (NECC) in Massachusetts.

Nationally Hispanic enrollments increased by 48% from the fall of 2009 to the fall of 2019, while all undergraduate enrollments decreased by 5% during the same time frame. As the first Hispanic-serving institution in Massachusetts, Northern Essex was benefiting from this trend, with a student population that was 43% Hispanic in fall 2019.

Then Covid hit, and Hispanic enrollments dropped faster than other segments of higher education. In fall 2020, Northern Essex experienced a 7.5% decline in Hispanic enrollments as compared to a 2.7% increase for non-Hispanic students.

Thanks to a number of initiatives that were designed to support all students, with a particular focus on Hispanic students, the college was able to rebound. In fall 2021, Hispanic student enrollments were up 6.5% (non-Hispanic enrollments declined by 1% during that same period) and that upward trend is continuing this spring with a 4.2% increase in Hispanic enrollments (as compared to a 4.1% decline for non-Hispanic students).

Why Hispanic students are leaving college

As a first-generation Hispanic college graduate who started at a community college and went on to earn a doctorate, Jennifer Mezquita, NECC’s vice president of student affairs, understands the Hispanic student experience. 

“The pandemic has exacerbated the barriers and challenges that our Hispanic students already face. Competing priorities and meeting basic needs often trump the immediacy of a college education,” she says.

Isa Grullon, a journalism/communication major and editor of the college’s student newspaper, The Observer, is one of the many Northern Essex students who faced added stresses due to the pandemic, including financial issues, increased family responsibilities and trouble navigating the transition to remote learning.

Before the pandemic, Grullon was already balancing her college work with a full-time job as an administrator on a surgical floor at Mass General Hospital, single-parenting her teenage daughter, and managing a recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. She found the transition to remote learning “very challenging” and she was also helping her daughter navigate remote learning for the first time.

“The pandemic made learning much more difficult for me,” she says. “There were definitely times when I felt overwhelmed. I stumbled and failed/dropped classes that I should have taken and passed with ease.”

New supports help students stay on track

As the pandemic progressed and funding became available, the college was focused on creating new resources to help students like Grullon persist.

Student ambassador program

In fall 2020, when 90% of classes were online, Northern Essex launched its student ambassadors, a group of up to 20 students who had been successful in online learning and were now available to help connect their peers with the college resources, such as IT support, career services, financial aid, tutoring and more.

Students who are struggling are referred to student ambassadors by faculty and staff and can also reach out on their own for answers and support. Of the 17 students currently serving as ambassadors, 12 are Hispanic and many are bilingual. Three of the bilingual students, including Mayerley Astacio, are working exclusively with English-language learners.

Astacio, who started in the college’s English as a second language classes and is now close to earning an associate degree in engineering, says some of the biggest challenges for the students she works with are with technology and communication.

“They struggle with how to use Blackboard and how to communicate with their professors, now that they’re not seeing them in class,” said Astacio, who along with other ambassadors, can listen and direct students to support services.

While the program is still young, the initial results are promising. Surveys show that students who have worked with a student ambassador are twice as likely to feel a sense of belonging on campus.

Spanish-language marketing

Since the start of the pandemic, Northern Essex has also enhanced its Spanish language outreach, creating tools to reach both Hispanic students and their families.

A new addition to the college’s website homepage is Squire, a bilingual chatbot that answers common questions that prospective and current students might have about enrollment and admissions, financial aid, academic placement and testing, IT services and more, in both Spanish and English.

 Since “Squire” (a nod to the Northern Essex Knight mascot) launched last fall, there have been thousands of conversations, 6% of which are in Spanish.

The college has also recently translated its enrollment packet into Spanish, according to Mezquita, and is providing bilingual staff members who can connect with Spanish-speaking students and their families.

“We are being very intentional in connecting with Spanish-speaking students,” says Mezquita. “We want to demystify the enrollment process for our first-generation Hispanic students.”

HEERF funding

Like most community colleges, Northern Essex is using the funding it has received through the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) to help all students persist through the pandemic, funding laptops for remote learning and assistance with tuition and fees, educational debt and other educational costs.

The college also set aside funding for two initiatives that have been especially helpful for Hispanic students: CED transcript evaluations and CLEP testing.

Through a partnership with the Center for Education Documentation (CED) in Boston, Northern Essex evaluates high school diplomas or college credits from other countries, helping immigrants who have college credits or a full degree from a college or university outside the U.S. and want to continue their education here or validate their credits.

Funding was also directed toward the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), which gives students the opportunity to earn college credits for prior learning. The most requested CLEP voucher is for Spanish. For many Northern Essex students, Spanish is their first language and they can pass the CLEP test and gain college credit.

The fees typically required for CED transcript review and CLEP vouchers have been covered during the pandemic, removing financial barriers that may prevent students from pursuing their education.

Early college increases

Close to 700 local high school students are enrolled in early college programs at Northern Essex, and, in fall 2021, close to a third (216 students) were Hispanic, a 38% increase from four years before when 133 Hispanic students were enrolled.

The college has instituted several new policies designed to make early college more accessible to English language learners. Those initiatives include expanding the program entry requirements from a score on a standardized test to a number of other factors including high school GPA, student work portfolio and high school recommendation.

Also, students can now join early college from a number of pathways, allowing students at multiple reading and writing levels to access early college. Previously, students were required to start with English 101. 

Looking ahead

These are just a few of the initiatives that are helping Northern Essex recruit and maintain its Hispanic enrollments, and as the enrollment figures indicate, the college is making progress.

Isa Grullon, the student who was struggling, completed her associate degree requirements in December and plans to transfer to a four-year university in the fall. 

She is thankful for the HEERF funding that she received to replace her dying laptop and cover educational expenses after a health-related work leave.

“There were certainly times I felt overwhelmed but I don’t feel I ever truly thought of giving up…I tried to just keep going, tried to keep one foot in the door and not let go completely,” she said.

About the Author

Ernie Greenslade
Ernie Greenslade is director of public relations at Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts.