Recruitment, support and then completion

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With the pandemic years almost completely behind us, community colleges across the country now have several new challenges to work on. The large drop in student enrollment is the first. This began before the pandemic and became worse during the past three years. The following are the challenges ahead:

  • Increase enrollments: Reach out to students who dropped out of college before completing their associate degrees and/or certificate programs.
  • Offer tuition incentives: Tuition waivers for first-time adult students, low or no tuition for the dual-credit students who have already enrolled through their secondary schools and offer financial aid support to all others in need.
  • Step up student support services: Many former students’ lives have changed through family medical problems, new work commitments and/or having started a family.
  • Commit the institution to help each student to their degree and/or certificate completion: This should be expanded throughout the institution to help students learn the value of completing their programs at the college.

Increase enrollments

More than 827,000 students have dropped out of community colleges during the pandemic years. Many of these former students’ lives have drastically changed in terms of family and work commitments. 

To be able to consider re-enrolling, colleges should put together an institutional team to reach out through direct telephone calls, personal letters, etc., to let former students know that they are not forgotten. In this manner, the counseling and admissions staff members can develop some strategies to get these students back to campus full- or part-time. 

Many of these “drop-outs” are still in their community college area, so a significant number of them can be reached. A second large group of potential new enrollees could come from the adult population within each college district. No other colleges will be recruiting them as many have home and work responsibilities and would not leave the area.

Offer tuition and other financial incentives

Former full-time students who had some form of financial support through their community college financial aid offices may be able to pick up the same aid upon returning. In order to attract a new adult population, it may be worth offering tuition waivers to help them get started. In the past, some colleges offered a first course “tuition free” to students, and it helped increase adult enrollments at those institutions. Many of those first-time college students continued their studies once they learned they could be successful. In addition, many of them as first-time college students in their families served as a role model for their spouses and children.

A very significant and growing group of students in secondary schools has been the dual-credit students. They are now enrolled in community colleges through almost every secondary school in the country. Many complete at least one year of college credits by their secondary school graduation. A few others completed an associate degree during that same period.

The colleges would do well to start early in the dual-credit enrollment of sophomores or juniors to begin informing them about the value of community colleges. Parents should also receive a good orientation on these colleges and their programs. 

Instead of just having pride in how far each student progresses in dual-credit during their secondary school years, more needs to be considered. For those students completing one semester, one year and less than an associate degree, efforts to keep them committed at the community college should become an ongoing process. These students and their parents will see the value in “free tuition” and/or low tuition offered at these community colleges. 

The quality of the teaching needs to be impressed as well. As more of these students complete a degree program at their community college, more of their friends will follow. Illinois Valley Community College (IVCC) had a large increase in Marquette High School (MHS) graduates start coming to the college to complete their degree work. Their friends did follow in fairly large numbers, and there was almost a 200% increase in students from MHS who enrolled at IVCC.

Step up student support services

College admission and counseling personnel can do much to make personal contact with their former students. In this matter, via telephone contact they will learn what is possible in terms of attracting them back either full- or part-time. They can also have a series of “learn about your community college” nights at area secondary schools both day and evening. The evening programs could be geared to talk with potential new adult enrollees. 

Counselors in secondary schools can provide a major source of contacts with the adults in their school districts. They will have undoubtedly worked with a large number of them during their secondary school years. These counselors can be added to the college staff on a part-time basis.  They can also explain the financial support available to adult students as proposed above.

Commit the institution to degree and certificate completion support

The completion of degrees and certificates has been identified across the country as a problem. Little creative efforts in this area are ever publicized, and it continues to plague community colleges, as well as many senior colleges and universities.

The staff at Illinois Valley Community College some years ago conducted a five-year program to see what might happen with an “all-in” approach to get both degree and certificate completions.  Counselors, admissions and records office staff members, and degree and vocational-technical faculty all worked on the project. They started encouraging their students by showing them the value of having a certificate and/or degree completion on their work resumes when looking for work. They also explained the benefit and ease of transfer to universities if their degree was completed prior to transfer.

The results: After the five years, certificate completions went from 122 to 315 a year for a 258% increase. Associate degree completions went from 417 to 556 for a 33.3% increase. Together, this gave the college a 61% increase in completions.

Time to get to work

Enrollments can bounce back in the community and technical colleges. It will take strong leadership, creativity and a personal touch in outreach. There also needs to be a commitment by the institutional student services and academic staffs. Can the institutions bring back the over 600,000 students that they lost during the pandemic years? This is the challenge and it may well be possible!

About the Author

Hans A. Andrews
Dr. Hans A. Andrews is a Distinguished Fellow in Community College Leadership and former president of Olney Central College in Illinois.