Kamarree Williams had been on a path to college since before he learned long division.
A 2020 high school graduate from Marin City, California, Williams had entered an after-school college prep program, Bridge the Gap, when he was in third grade. During high school, he took dual enrollment courses at the two-year College of Marin. Williams, who is now 18, had hoped to attend the college after graduation, transfer to a four-year school and eventually own a restaurant one day.
But at the end of 2019, an asthma-related hospital visit and the death of several extended family members sent Williams into a depression. That, plus the extra load of an internship, hurt his grades. Then came the coronavirus — and Zoom. Williams said he’d always struggled to take notes from teachers’ talks, instead copying whatever they wrote on the board. Distance learning was lecture-heavy during the last few months of high school.
“I wasn’t entirely sure if I would take a break or not when Covid hit,” Williams said. His performance in his last high school classes was “the final nail in the coffin.” Instead of spending the fall semester watching a parade of instructors on his bedroom computer monitor, he decided to keep his job at a coffee shop and wait out the pandemic.
Community colleges have traditionally been a refuge where recent high school graduates — and adults of all ages — could pick up credits and develop new skills, including during a poor job market.
Enrollment at two-year schools swelled during the downturn a decade ago. Many expected a similar rush during the pandemic.
That didn’t happen. Fall enrollment at community colleges was down 10 percent from a year earlier, according to National Student Clearinghouse data from mid-December. That was a much steeper decline than the roughly 1 percent drop-off in undergraduates at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions, despite predictions that more students might opt for colleges closer to home before transferring to four-year schools. The decline in first-time enrollment at community colleges was a staggering 21 percent. Black, Hispanic and Native American first-year students showed even steeper drops in a November report, between 28 and 29 percent.
Many factors are behind the plummeting enrollment at two-year schools. The prospect of in-class learning raises the specter of Covid-19 infection. Remote instruction has worn out its welcome for many. And community colleges tend to attract those whose precarious finances have been hurt most by the pandemic, and who needed greater guidance from administrators and faculty at the very moment that those officials were stepping back from in-person recruitment and services.
If those trends continue, they could exacerbate existing racial and socioeconomic gaps in higher education, as four-year schools, which tend to serve wealthier and whiter populations, bounce back more quickly while the pandemic hollows out community colleges that have been slowly leaking students for a decade. Fewer students equal less revenue for community colleges, which could lead to cuts at the very institutions so many depend upon as a first step toward economic mobility. How bad that cycle gets depends in part on how many low-income students and students of color can emerge from the pandemic still on a path to higher education.
Angel Vasquez considered riding out the pandemic at a community college after deferring his plans to attend a four-year school. The 18-year-old, who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his parents, siblings and extended family, had enrolled at the University of Rhode Island for fall 2020. Household expenses became more pressing when his father, a manual laborer originally from Guatemala, lost work in the spring.
“I’d rather help them financially than go to college,” Vasquez, said. “I’ve been working since I was, like, 13. I’ve always helped out. We all try to work together.”
Like Williams, Vasquez had spent years in a college prep program — in his case, the College Crusade of Rhode Island. His parents encouraged him to stick to his plan to attend the University of Rhode Island, but Vasquez was wary of living in a dorm as the virus raged, and he wanted to contribute some income to the family. He considered a stint at his local community college, but his girlfriend was enrolled there, and her experience during remote learning in the spring discouraged him.
Instead, Vasquez found an overnight gig stocking freight at a warehouse and stayed home with his family. “I’d rather help them financially than go to college,” he said.
Decisions like Vasquez’s are rattling community colleges around the country. Steven Gonzales, interim chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges in Arizona, thought he might see an enrollment uptick in the fall. Instead, enrollment is down 16 percent. Gonzales says that’s not for a lack of applicants.
Among first-time applicants to the Maricopa system, 27 percent fewer ended up enrolling than in fall of 2019. When Maricopa contacted some of those students to learn why, students complained that no one from the school had reached out to them. “They felt they were out there just floating around on their own,” Gonzales said.
During the pandemic, no one was on campus to guide Maricopa students through the many steps between application and enrollment, like lining up financial aid, getting an ID card and choosing classes that would build toward a particular certificate or degree. “If students experience some sort of issue, we find that [they] will throw their hands up and just give up,” he said.
For the nearly three in 10 community college students nationally who would be the first in their families to attend college, that alienation can be more pronounced. “Student support systems are so important,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. “And even though many of them have moved to an online environment, you’re looking at first-generation college students that don’t come from a culture of knowing how to navigate the process.”
The Maricopa staff also learned that technology was a huge barrier to enrollment when they conducted surveys and reached out to individual students stuck in the “enrollment funnel.” Maybe there was just one computer for the family, or not enough bandwidth, said Felicia Ganther, an associate vice chancellor with the Maricopa community college system. Then there were time and money problems: retail jobs disappearing, new demands from children staying home to attend school virtually.
These barriers don’t just discourage those considering enrolling in community college for the first time; they’re also making it harder for systems to keep overburdened students from pulling out. To help them, Maricopa’s Gonzales wants to figure out which students need computers, Wi-Fi and food. But it’s difficult with students stuck at home.
“We could see it on their faces before, but if they’re not on our campuses, how do we see that and know that?” he said.
Gonzales has patched together a set of services to help students stay afloat, including food pantries; $13.5 million in new grants of up to $1,200 per semester; letting students who have paid for 12 credits take even more credits for free during the same semester; and having adjunct faculty reaching out to students who had fallen off the map. Using CARES Act funding, Maricopa’s Phoenix College partnered with the City Council and local public schools to begin bringing free Wi-Fi to a 250-square-mile area of the city.
At the Alamo Colleges District in San Antonio, Adelina Silva, the vice chancellor for student success, believes that students who feel a personal connection are more likely to stay enrolled. She said the district has had about a million and a half direct communications with students since.
Covid-19 pushed classes online, many made by student advisers. Students know these advisers — they’re required to meet after 15, 30 and 45 credit hours.
While the Alamo system has seen an 8 percent drop in first-time enrollment, overall enrollment has gone up during the pandemic by about 1 percent. Silva attributed this to current students sticking with classes during the spring and into the fall, thanks to efforts like one to offer free summer tuition to students who completed nine spring credits.
Since the pandemic started, Alamo has tried to meet as many student needs as possible, Silva said, lending out thousands of computers and hotspots, creating “Wi-Fi lots” where students can park and learn, sending out “digital backpacks” with instructions on accessing support services online, and setting up campus “advocacy centers” for students with housing, food and health needs. Alamo also waived fees for the assessment test that first-time students lacking ACT or SAT scores must take.
“We found out we had thousands of students in that category,” Silva said. “$30 or $300 is still a barrier for our students.”
The cost and logistics of child care can also make or break enrollment for community college students, about 30 percent of whom are parents, according to one estimate from 2014. Brittany Jo Lee, a 33-year-old student at Arapahoe Community College (ACC) in Colorado, gets a grant that covers most of her child care. She made it through the fall semester and has enrolled for the spring.
“I’m a single mom,” Lee said. “It’s been the resources at ACC that kept me in.”
Rachelle Spencer, a 34-year-old single parent, had taken courses at community colleges for more than a year in and around Baltimore when Covid hit. Then she lost her job as a nanny, and her two children started online school from home. Spencer said the switch to virtual instruction in her own courses generated “way more assignments.” She could have cut down to one class, but that would have jeopardized her financial aid. So she cut down to zero.
“It was the most obvious thing to drop to keep juggling the other balls,” Spencer said. “It’s just too much.”
Spencer plans to return to community college after the pandemic. Higher education experts worry that many students never will. A 2019 National Student Clearinghouse report, “Some College, No Degree,” found that only 12 percent of people who had last enrolled in a community college between 1993 and 2013 returned to any type of degree-granting higher education institution in the next five years.
“Students who take time off have a hard time getting back on track with their studies, and we feel like this gap in their education could become a trap,” said Dana Ginestet, chief program officer for the College Crusade of Rhode Island. “They could suffer potentially lifelong financial consequences.”
That said, the experience of colleges during the Great Recession offers some cause for optimism. The crush of students returning to campus didn’t happen immediately after the economy collapsed. It took about 18 months for enrollment to surge, according to National Student Clearinghouse data.
But the pandemic may be intensifying trends that were already contributing to enrollment declines. One of those trends is students questioning the value of higher education. Anthony Cortese, an 18-year-old from Port Chester, New York, took five courses at Westchester Community College in the fall. He was happy with all of them, but he’ll take none in the spring. Instead, he plans to pursue a real estate license while chasing income through “side hustles” like selling sneakers, schlepping for DoorDash and an e-commerce model called dropshipping.
“The pandemic opened my eyes more to the idea that maybe I don’t have to just be following this path of ‘go to high school, go right to college after,’” Cortese said. “Basically, I want to be an entrepreneur, do my own thing, make my own money, on my own terms.”
Data from Strada Education Network show that “aspiring adult learners” are less than half as likely to see the value in additional education as they were just one year ago. To Carol D’Amico, executive vice president for learning and policy at Strada, the pandemic has reinforced a message that community colleges should have been heeding already: that adult learners need programs with a clearer pathway to good jobs, with more nondegree courses and other short-term options to build marketable skills.
“I would make sure that students who enrolled met with a career adviser day one — hour one — and had labor market data, knew generally what they wanted to pursue, and had good information about the jobs they could qualify for if they pursued that path,” D’Amico said.
Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, applauds what he called the “guided pathways” approach of Alamo Colleges District. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is an independent news organization also housed at Teachers College.) “They’ve got students on a plan, in a program, and the programs have been designed so that they lead to good jobs,” said Jenkins, who researches community college “pathway” reforms that help students finish school and find good jobs. Advisers at Alamo are assigned by program area; they know the field a student will eventually be entering.
These moves can help community colleges, pandemic or not, Jenkins believes. Enrollment had already been declining around 2 percent per year before Covid, with a growing share coming from dual enrollment, according to American Association of Community Colleges data.
“Community colleges have got to get their act together,” Jenkins said. “Covid is accelerating all the challenges they were facing beforehand and intensifying the competition they’re facing.”
Williams still wants to end up at College of Marin, even if it’s online. “My plan originally was to just take off a semester to see if things would change,” Williams said. “Then it just changed to the entire year. If things don’t go back to normal by the next fall semester, I’ll just be forced to go back and just try to deal with distance learning.”
When Angel Vasquez is asked whether he’ll return to school after the pandemic, he pauses. Maybe he’d consider a few online classes, he said, definitely not a four-year school.
“I’d probably keep working, to be honest,” he added. “You already got yourself in that worker mentality.”
This story about community college enrollment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.