Over the last year and a half, community college enrollments across the college have plummeted by over 10% including a staggering 21% for first time college students. For community colleges whose funding is dependent specifically upon enrollments this enrollment decline has been disastrous.
The COVID pandemic has certainly been the most complex and challenging time of my thirty-five year academic career. As an academic administrator for the last twenty years, there are certain things you are pretty sure you “know,” about enrollment and enrollment management. You “know” that community college enrollment counterpoints the economy. When the economy is in decline and unemployment is higher, typically enrollment increases as people look for new opportunities.
When COVID first hit, many of us wondered if the impending unemployment spike from the pandemic would lead to enrollment gains. It did not, this was the first sign that we were really dealing with something unique. As campuses quickly pivoted to online education they saw a decrease in enrollments for the Fall 2020 semester. Initially, many colleges saw the pandemic as something that might be a semester or two disruption but nothing more.
As someone with a background in the biological sciences, I saw the pandemic a little differently. I remember my faculty as they were preparing to leave campus in March 2020 saying, see you in a couple of weeks. I told many of them to prepare for a much longer time away from campus. So the pandemic went from being a short-term interruption, to a paradigm shifting event in education. In my post entitled, How to be Best at What’s Next, I talked about the shift from emergency to long-term change thinking.
This fall has been the most challenging semester of my career, colleges, after fully pivoting classes and student services online, this semester are having from partially to significantly pivot back to campus. This has created a myriad of problems. First of all, most community colleges were primarily situated to provide face to face services to their students. While there were some services online and of course access by telephone, the majority of student support interactions from counseling to financial aid, admission and academic support services were primarily delivered delivered face to face. During the pandemic, with campuses mostly closed, campuses pivoted to fully online services. This fall, colleges are now finding that they need to serve two populations because we still have significant numbers of students fully online, while also having large numbers of students back on campus.
In terms of instruction, the pandemic has forced us to greatly increase both the number and types of online instruction that we offer. I spent almost ten years as a STEM dean, and over that time I had many conversations about translating science labs to the online environment. I was told many times by discipline faculty that biology, chemistry and physics labs could not be done in the online environment. It took the pandemic to force most faculty in hard to convert to online areas into finding creative and effective ways to teach the lab portions of their courses online. One really big upside has been some of these faculty, as well as faculty who had resisted online teaching, have really come to enjoy it and/or the lifestyle associated with teaching online. This has been further supported at some colleges by extensive online training support. At the college where I work, Skyline College near San Francisco, our Center for Transitional Teaching and Learning under the direction of Dean Moe were able to provide online teaching training for over 90% of our faculty. This training featured a several week course training, along with CANVAS course development and a final course review of a class that the faculty would be teaching. The process was also extensively supported with faculty peer mentors in the process. Successful completion of the training resulted in a payment of $2500 to the faculty for completion.
While all of this is fantastic, it’s also made many faculty very comfortable teaching online. So now, the added complication we face, is how to bring faculty and courses back to campus in a time of COVID uncertainty. So while our campus and many others are beginning to approach pre-COVID levels of face to face class offerings, we will likely never fully return to those levels. Facing public and political pressure to return to normal, board of trustees are beginning to push campuses to return to pre-COVID face to face instructional levels.
So as pressure mounts to return to “normal” and community colleges are also facing enrollment decline an unfortunate form of magical thinking is starting to emerge. It is the idea that you can fix all of the enrollment declines, just by offering more on ground classes. Anecdotally, from my own observations and the observations of other deans I’ve spoken to, on ground classes are not filling as full or as quickly as online sections. The problem with this type of magical or silver bullet thinking about our current enrollment issues is that it oversimplifies the issues involved with the pandemic.
First off, for many community colleges, the population we serve is a population that resides in some of the lowest socioeconomic levels of society. These are people who make the least amount of money, and have the weakest safety nets. Often our students have to choose between work and school and at a time of massive economic uncertainty, many have to choose employment over school. This is not to suggest our students don’t already work, anyone who works with community college students know that one issue they face in being successful in courses, is that many of them work too much. But the people in our society with the weakest safety nets were most impacted by the economic issues of the pandemic. The pandemic also caused many young children to be out of school and needing to be homeschooled, this also impacted the ability of people to attend college.
We know that low income families with children were exceptionally hard hit economically during the pandemic. This is very much the population we serve, particularly for community colleges with large 18-24 year-old full time student populations. Vaccine hesitancy is also higher among non-whites and may lead to more hesitancy in returning to campus, with vaccine mandates having a higher impact on these groups and many community colleges are the primary entry point of education for these groups. Additionally, changing regulations and difficulty in finding childcare is still impacting our students. Finally, at exactly the time our students need the most support and outreach to stay connected to school, schools are struggling to figure out exactly how to operate these services in this new environment. So the idea that we can solve all of the issues our students are facing by just offering more on ground classes is certainly magical thinking.
We are in a paradigm shifting moment in education, particularly for community colleges. Moving forward with the same type of thinking to address this issue that we utilized pre-pandemic is a mistake. What will be needed to address this issue is complex issue oriented thinking. How as colleges do we support students needing services like childcare, while also requiring possibly a new type of educational model? Maybe it’s time to consider that we need to rethink our traditional semester structures. Perhaps we need to start moving more of our courses out into community locations closer to our student populations to reduce transportation issues. Maybe, and this is truly blasphemy in higher education, perhaps we need to consider more self-paced courses with variable time limits.
I’m sure there are other ideas that you all have and I’d love to see them in comments. The one thing I’m certain of, is if programs and colleges don’t change the way we recruit and serve students, to match our students new reality, our enrollment woes will continue.