As fall enrollment figures begin to gel, a small but growing number of community colleges are reporting a slight uptick in enrollments compared to last year, but still far below the numbers they had before the Covid pandemic.
Anecdotally, some colleges from Maine to Texas are reporting a small rebound, while others are saying preliminary enrollment data indicate that at least the pace of declines appears to be slowing significantly compared to the past two years. Still, some community colleges look to face continued substantial declines that are worrisome.
A recent report by Fitch Ratings predicts that U.S. colleges and universities will continue to face financial pressures resulting from lower enrollments due to the pandemic, especially among less-selective institutions. Among the challenges that colleges face in their efforts to boost enrollments: changing demographics in certain areas, concerns about college costs and a strong labor market that has potential students opting to work instead of furthering their education.
The report noted that employers are using initiatives to attract and retain workers, including on-the-job training, certification programs or relaxation of college degree requirements.
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“This mirrors a longer trend, particularly in certain sectors, of relaxing degree requirements and focusing on skills-based hiring criteria,” it says. “And this shift is bearing out in the sector, as demand for alternatives to traditional college programs is evidenced by growing career and technical education program enrollment at community colleges, versus the total community college enrollment decline of 11% in spring 2022.”
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center publishes fall and spring enrollment data that are considered the most accurate reflection of what’s happening on campuses. Preliminary fall figures are expected around October 20, with a final report in late December. Enrollment data for this past spring showed that community colleges continued to see a significant downward slide in spring 2022, but an increase among their freshmen offered some hope for larger increases this fall.
Strategic outreach, recruitment and more
Community colleges that are seeing preliminary bumps say it’s the result of a wide swath of efforts undertaken to recruit and retain students and to bring back students who “stopped out” for myriad reasons.
In Florida, Palm Beach State College’s (PBSC) fall enrollment is up 6% compared to the prior year. With nearly 25,000 students enrolled for face-to-face and online classes, it marks the first time since fall 2018 that enrollment increased over the prior fall term, according to the college.
“The pandemic led many students to reassess their plans, and it’s reassuring that they still see the value of a college education and its role in the trajectory of their future,” PBSC President Ava Parker said in a release.
PBSC leaders attribute the enrollment hike to strategic outreach, recruitment and marketing strategies, as well as a general interest among students in returning to some sense of normalcy.
Two initiatives launched this summer have in particular helped to fuel the enrollment increases, according to the college: Restart Your Dream and Fresh Start. The Restart Your Dream initiative, funded by the college’s foundation, offers free in-state tuition this fall for up to 2,000 students who had attended PBSC from fall 2017 to summer 2021 but stopped. More than 900 students enrolled this term through the initiative.
PBSC plans to extend the offer to the spring term for students who qualified but did not start school this fall.
The Fresh Start initiative, covered with federal CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief funding, targeted students who attended PBSC between fall 2021 and summer 2022 and had a registration hold because of an unpaid balance. More than 1,500 students have had their holds removed and their past balance paid, according to the college.
Enrollment also is up among first-time-in-college and dual enrollment students.
“It’s a sign that high school students are starting to be interested in college again, and applications are up,” said Stephen Joyner, associate vice president for enrollment and retention. “During the pandemic, many high school graduates were taking time off. Now they’re starting to come back.”
Despite the optimistic increase, college officials note that enrollments are still below pre-pandemic figures.
“We have not recovered and gotten back to the pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, but we’re moving in the right direction,” Joyner said.
Closer ties with local schools
In Texas, Lee College has hit its highest enrollment in its 88-year history. Numbers indicate it has enrolled 8,443 students for the fall semester, which is 9% above last fall. The previous high was in fall 2018, with slightly more than 8,000 students.
“Our college’s greatest challenge has been a decline in enrollment, so to see this new bar set, we are simply ecstatic,” said Lee College President Lynda Villanueva, who credited various strategies to reach students.
One notable tactic was to establish partnerships with school districts in Lee College’s service area to help high school seniors make a seamless transition to college.
“Earlier this year, we adjusted our enrollment practices to bring the entirety of student services to partner districts to recruit and enroll students into Lee before they receive their high school diplomas,” said Scott Bennett, Lee College’s associate vice president for student services.
He also credits the college’s First Time Free at Lee initiative, which offers new students tuition, fees and e-books at no cost.
“The two approaches gave us the opportunity to interact with students early in the registration cycle and promote the value of coming to Lee College in the fall,” Bennett said.
Lee College also doubled down on ensuring students had the resources to help them navigate challenges ranging from food and housing, to childcare, transportation and mental health. And it has revamped measures to retain students, such as redesigning its new student orientation and implementing an online degree planning and auditing program to help students stay on track and graduate on time.
Keeping it flexible
In Illinois, Elgin Community College’s (ECC) fall enrollment so far reflects an 11% increase over the previous fall. More than 8,900 students are enrolled for the fall semester, with numbers continuing to increase to more than 9,000 students beyond the 10th day due to later fall start date registrations for 12- and 10-week courses.
“We knew that regaining some of the losses experienced over the past two years would take a concerted effort from every area of the college, and that’s exactly what we did,” said ECC President David Sam, who credits the college’s flexibility and affordability as key factors in this year’s growth.
While the number of in-person class options offered also significantly increased this fall post-pandemic, maintaining online and hybrid course modalities are key to ensuring more access and flexibility in course options, according to college officials. In fall 2019, only 10% of classes were offered online; this fall, it’s 40%.
ECC has seen large enrollment increases in transfer students (42%), reverse enrollments (40%) and dual enrollment (36%). Dual enrollment also appears to be, in part, fueling increases at some other colleges, like Alabama’s Northwest-Shoals Community College (NW-SCC) and Enterprise State Community College.
At NW-SCC, enrollment has reached 4,000 credit students for the first time since 2010. Currently, NW-SCC has enrolled 4,071 credit students for the fall 2022 semester, which is an increase of 700 students (more than 20%) from final fall 2021 figures (3,371). The college saw significant increases in on-campus technical programs, child development (up 26%), cosmetology (up 24%), electrical (up 30%) and industrial systems (up 35%), as well as a 12% increase in students taking virtual learning courses.
But the largest increase in student enrollment came from students taking dual-enrollment courses at area high schools or on one of the college’s campuses. From fall 2021 to fall 2022, NW-SCC saw over a 50% increase in dual students.
Muscle Shoals Career Academy (MSCA) at Muscle Shoals High School is one of the largest dual-enrollment sites for NW-SCC. School and college leaders note that efforts to create an environment that promotes academic and career success for high school students are working. High school students are especially interested in taking college-level courses, they said.
Enterprise State Community College saw an 11% enrollment increase for the start of the fall semester, and the college is ready to help more people register for classes for its second mini-term.
“There are so many factors that led to this growth,” said Kassie Mathis, its dean of students. “With recent funding changes and great recruiting, we saw a large increase in dual enrollment participation, but we also saw more first-time freshmen enrolling in classes.”
Mathis noted that new and expanded programs also helped to foster the increases. One of its most successful programs is mechatronics. It started in 2019 with 12 students. This semester, there are 91 students in the program, including several dual-enrollment students.