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August 17, 2020; Inside Higher Ed

It is probably too early to tell whether the students who didn’t reregister for college did so in order to sit out the semester or to drop out entirely. Predictions made at the end of the spring semester called for students—both new and those from other institutions—to enroll in community colleges close to home for the fall to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers coming in, however, indicate that countless individuals just aren’t attending college at all. Students, wary of the pandemic, are reluctant to attend online. Some are parents with schoolchildren at home, taking virtual classes themselves; others have lost employment or are concerned about job security.

While a significant number of community colleges don’t report enrollment numbers until their semester has begun—due to rolling enrollment and prospective students who decide to attend at the last minute—some schools that have already opened are reporting decreases that range from five to as much as 30 percent. Whether the classes are online or in-person doesn’t seem to influence these numbers, but community colleges that serve a large number of minority and low-income students seem to be the most vulnerable.

A number of community colleges had an uptick in summer students, but when colleges shut down in March and switched to virtual classes to complete the semester, there were signs there would be problems in the fall. Professors from California’s Glendale Community College reported that at the end of March, one in ten of their registered students did not show up for online classes. Glendale history professor Roger Bowerman said that another 10 percent were struggling emotionally or having problems with the technology. (Glendale will still be all online for the next semester.)

Kansas City, Missouri’s Metropolitan Community College system will have the majority of its classes online except those for majors that require in-person for accreditation. Chancellor Kimberly Beatty forecasts a decrease of 14 percent in enrollment.

“We think many people don’t have access to the technology,” Beatty says, despite the college giving away computers and providing internet hotspots. “There’s also the fear factor. People are thinking in the short term. They just need to survive.”

Beatty’s staff has asked students why they were not attending Metropolitan. Most replied that they weren’t going to another school, they were just not attending college.

Fewer students means less income, both from tuition and other sources like student fees and campus food courts. Mike Parson, governor of Missouri, has cut the state’s piece of the college system budget by 18 percent, which is $8.5 million. The college system has closed buildings, slashed expenses, and frozen hiring—and will now have to cut positions.

Northern Virginia Community College will have the same class structure as Missouri’s when they open next week—online with a handful of necessary in-person classes. They expected a drop of 15 percent, but their decrease in enrollment is closer to five percent. The new president, Anne Kress, credits the provosts for stressing the ability to transfer community college credits to four-year schools.

A couple of universities, including Notre Dame and UNC Chapel Hill, that opened in August for in-person classes with students in dorms have already shut classrooms after one week because of dozens of COVID-19 cases. This will not make the case for community colleges who are hoping for last-minute enrollees; instead it will likely convince prospective students who have been hesitating to just skip the semester.

Community colleges also have a portion of enrolled students who just don’t show up. Susan Price, vice-chancellor of the Alabama Community College system, says that number has typically been 10 to 12 percent of those registered. Alabama is presently staring at a 29 percent drop from last year, with school starting next week.

“We’re going to tighten our belts and expect the spring semester to be good,” she says.

Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College, mentions another external source of pressure on students deciding whether to register. “This is a result of delayed and ever-changing plans for fall semester with our K-12 school districts,” he suggests, considering Laramie’s 18 percent drop. This affects two areas: high school advanced studies for college credits and parents who attend college.

“A significant portion of our decrease across the state is in the areas of dual and concurrent enrollment,” Schaffer notes, and high school students may not be signing up to earn college credits during the pandemic. Wyoming’s dual enrollment is down 43 percent, and concurrent enrollment is down 82 percent.

And then there are the parent-students. One survey suggests one in four community college students are parents. If elementary schools keep students out of classrooms doing online learning, their parents may lack either the time or the childcare to go to school themselves. It may be one stressor too many.

Smaller institutions have had some better numbers, the exception to the trend. Katie Keszey of the Community College of Vermont told Inside Higher Ed via email:

This week, we received 274 applications for admission, which represents a 16 percent increase over the same week last year and an 11 percent increase over last week. Enrollment of new first-time students is up 13 percent over this time last year (365 compared to 324), and of transfer applicants is up 16 percent over this time last year (194 compared to 167). Our new continuing education admissions numbers are also strong, with continuing ed enrolled new students up 60 percent (154 compared to 96). Overall new student enrollment is up seven percent.

Michael Thomson, the president of Northwest State Community College in Ohio, says they are about 10 percent higher than last year, with classes starting this week. While summer classes were mostly online, the fall semester will be 85 percent in-person.

“We require face masks, take temperatures at the door every day with a digital device, ask screening questions, sign in with a digital ID, practice social distancing and wipe common surfaces regularly,” he said. “I do not think we are doing anything more than other schools, but over the summer, there has clearly been a growing trust that students are safe here. As of this writing, no faculty, staff or student has tested positive for COVID.”

There is no prior data to guide these colleges; this is all new territory. With so many external pressures, the fall semester will create new reference points.—Marian Conway