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Community colleges have long been seen as an opportunity for students of all backgrounds to earn a degree. But those same students, especially the students of color, have been some of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. And many have had to drop out. But schools are hoping to bring students back with new initiatives. Hari Sreenivasan reports for our new series, Rethinking College.
Graduation season is in full swing at colleges and universities around the country. Even though the pandemic is easing its grip in the U.S., it's triggered many bigger questions about what schools should be doing in the months to come.
We start a special series tonight, and begin with the latest on community colleges. They have long been seen as an opportunity for students of all backgrounds to earn a degree. But those same students have been some of the hardest-hit by the pandemic. And many have had to drop out.
Hari Sreenivasan reports for our series Rethinking College.
May of 2019, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was carrying my second son. I was 16 weeks' pregnant.
By the time Fandrea Preston finally finished her cancer treatment, COVID-19 had shut down much of the country. But after 10 years as a medical assistant, in the middle of a pandemic, the mother of three decided to go to community college.
My husband was like: "You need to do something." He was like: "You know how your task-oriented, driven person." He was like: "You are going to need to do something."
So, he was like: "Go to school for cybersecurity."
Now in her first semester at Northern Virginia Community College, Fandrea's able to do all of her classes online, take care of her kids at home, and is already applying for jobs.
But that's not the story for many community college students in the U.S. right now. Between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, nationwide enrollment in public two-year colleges dropped 10 percent. This spring, the slide continued, and it was even worse among students of color. Colleges enrolled around 14 percent fewer Black and Latinx students and nearly 20 percent fewer indigenous students.
My youngest son was getting an award at school, and he didn't tell me. And, as a mom, that really broke my heart. It was kind of in that moment I knew that I needed to get one job that would be able to help me provide for my family.
At the time, Fulisha Oscar was working three jobs. But now the single mother of six is working on her associates degree at Madera Community College in Central California.
She is a survivor of domestic violence and wants to use her degree to one day open a shelter.
I wake up at 3:00 a.m. in the morning, and I put a computer desk and a computer in my closet, so that I could actually have a quiet area to study.
But when the coronavirus came to California, work dried up and the family was forced to stay at home. For Fulisha, school became overwhelming.
Our Internet wouldn't work. Then we couldn't — our — the Zooms were crashing.
There was no space. So you got to think about it. There are six school-aged children, right, from college all the way down to elementary, plus me. I'm in college. We're all trying to log into Zooms. We're all trying to do our homework.
It's just so much noise. It was so — you couldn't focus.
So, last summer, she dropped out.
And this is a highlight palette.
After getting a makeup resale business up and running, and better adjusting to remote life, Fulisha had enough funds and confidence to return to school last fall.
So, what should schools be doing for students like you?
I know a lot of people lost their jobs, so there was a worry about food or rent. Just remind them of the services available, that there's support. There are psychological services on campus. There's counselors, academic counselors on campus.
At the College of Southern Nevada, the state's largest college, they're hoping to bring back students like Fulisha.
This fall, the school's enrollment declined 12 percent from the year before. The school sits in the heart of Las Vegas. That's a hub for hospitality and tourism. And, at its peak, last April, unemployment in the city hit 33 percent.
Federico Zaragoza, the College of Southern Nevada's president, says the economic shutdown had an immediate impact on his students.
Financial reasons was the primary reason given for students stopping out.
Almost 40 percent of those students had a scenario where they had to decide between rent, food and a college expense. And many of our students were more comfortable with an in person environment than online courses.
Zaragoza hopes that, by connecting students to financial assistance, food pantries and mental health counseling, they can help students get back on a successful career path.
Even if you have more people looking for work, if the skills that they bring aren't the line to the skills required by employers, you're still going to have structural unemployment.
Why has this decline has been so severe?
Tom Brock and his colleagues at Columbia University's Community College Research Center have pored over U.S. census data and find households with community college students are harder-hit.
In a lot of these households, if the breadwinners lose their job, the person who might be going to community college might be kind of drafted in to help the house.
Absolutely. And it's important to remember that it may be the breadwinner himself or herself who is the community college student.
But Northern Virginia Community College has been able to buck this national trend.
NVCC's president, Anne Kress, says enrollment increased this year.
What did you do to make that happen?
We got out $750,000 in emergency aid very quickly. We were able to loan laptops. We turned our parking lots into Wi-Fi hot spots.
We also turned individuals who work at our college into what we called remote student support specialists. They reached out to students who might be a little bit missing in action. They let them know about the aid that they would qualify for. They let them know that we were here to help them.
On top of the school's efforts, Kress says Virginia's new free community college initiative could have a significant impact on students.
The program provides free tuition for low- and middle-income students in high demand fields, as well as funding for other expenses, like transportation and childcare. That extra help can make a huge difference for students like Fandrea Preston.
I'm not working right now due to the pandemic. And I'm trying to better myself with a career and to provide for my family in the future. So these funds are going to help me with the childcare and utilities and food to put on my table, and not have to worry about, are my lights going to get cut off?
And if community colleges cannot hold onto their students, Tom Brock believes the effects could ripple across the labor force.
Community colleges largely train health care workers, for example. They also train students in careers like construction and welding and other things needed, literally, quite literally, to get the economy humming again.
Some worry that, even if schools can get students back in class, the average completion rate for community college students is still very low.
As of 2019, only 40 percent of two-year college students complete their degree. But for Fandrea Preston and Fulisha Oscar, they know how important their education is.
I wanted my children to see how important education was. And I kind of felt like it was my responsibility, as the example and the head of the household, to kind of not only say it, but to act it out.
I know everyone is going through something. Everyone is. I mean, it is hard, but you have to keep pushing.
And they're both confident they won't let a pandemic get in their way.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.
Watch the Full Episode
Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
Rachel Wellford is a general assignment producer for PBS NewsHour.
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