Enrollment at U.S. community colleges has dropped nearly 8% this fall, newly released figures show, part of an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment as students face a global pandemic and the worst economic recession in decades.
Often, enrollment in higher education spikes in times of high unemployment and recession as students seek additional job skills and postpone entering the workforce. But the pandemic has overturned those traditional calculations, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks college enrollment.
Hardest hit were community colleges, which traditionally serve lower-income students and those seeking additional career skills. The enrollment drop comes as many of those schools face a host of new financial pressures.
"Those are institutions that were already operating in many cases on very thin margins even before the pandemic," says Doug Shapiro, who leads the research center at the Clearinghouse. He says the community college numbers are "most worrisome" because of the students they tend to serve.
"It's a matter of critical concern if even these kinds of traditional on-ramps to higher education for low income students are becoming inaccessible," Shapiro adds.
Throughout the summer, community college presidents told me they didn't know what to expect when it came to fall enrollment, though several were optimistic. In past recessions, community colleges in particular saw a boost, from students either priced out of other institutions or seeking job training to pivot to another career.
"As time drags on and we're still seeing millions of unemployed," Shapiro says, "I just don't think that we're going to ever get to the point where many of them [potential students] are in a position, or confident enough about the future, to say this is a good time to go back to school."
Many community colleges are holding courses primarily online this fall, which may also be a big part of why enrollment has dropped, he explains. "Many of the students don't have good Internet access to begin with, much less a good place in which to study and not be interrupted at home."
In addition to community colleges, other types of institutions are also enrolling fewer students. Attendance in private, nonprofit four-year schools is down 3.8% from last year. Overall, public, four-year colleges are doing much better, with an enrollment drop of just 0.4%, but that flat line also depends on where a university is located: At rural, four-year publics, enrollment fell 4%.
There is some good news: Overall, enrollment in graduate programs is up about 4% from last year — most of that increase can be attributed to short-term programs like post-baccalaureates and certificates, a sign that perhaps recent college graduates wanted to stave off the job market just a bit longer.
The preliminary data from the Clearinghouse represents about 3.6 million students at 629 colleges — that's nearly 22% of all the schools that typically report. The organization will release numbers again in October as more colleges provide their fall data.
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Enrollment at U.S. community colleges has dropped nearly 8% this fall. That's according to new national data out today. It's part of an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment as students face a global pandemic and the worst economic recession in decades. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports from a community college in western Michigan.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Community colleges teach millions of Americans, and this fall, those students are among the hardest hit by the pandemic - low-income students, student parents and Black and Latino students. Many of the campuses are mostly online, save for a handful of in-person courses in trades like nursing, welding and culinary.
BOB SHULTZ: I need one more pupusa. That's two all day.
NADWORNY: At Grand Rapids Community College, a class on international food is underway.
SHULTZ: So you - OK, do you have three steaks going? There's one. So you have two fired right now.
NADWORNY: In an industrial kitchen on campus, about half-a-dozen students in chef's aprons, gloves and surgical masks are constantly in motion.
(SOUNDBITE OF KITCHEN AMBIENCE)
NADWORNY: They're perfecting dishes like chicken tikka masala and arctic char with a pear vadouvan.
Just feels like the kind of class you've got to be here in person to do.
SHULTZ: Absolutely. Absolutely.
NADWORNY: Chef Bob Shultz is the instructor and the one who crafted the menu.
SHULTZ: The restaurants are open in the industry. And if we can't teach them how to do it safely, then I don't think anybody can.
NADWORNY: But the hubbub from the kitchen classroom sits in contrast to other empty spaces on campus. A student center, usually full, has one student. The enormous parking structure is largely vacant. This is the exact opposite of what was supposed to happen. Historically, when unemployment is high, students flock to community colleges to get better or different jobs. Bill Pink, the president of Grand Rapids Community College, says that's what everyone was saying would happen this year.
BILL PINK: Community colleges, you guys are going to clean up. You guys are not going to have room for all these people - that is so wrong.
NADWORNY: Here at GRCC, fall enrollment is down about 9% from last year. That's in line with what community colleges are seeing across the country. Pink sees a few factors influencing this drop - finances, students are just squeezed right now despite the low cost of tuition; uncertainty about the pandemic; and the idea of learning online.
PINK: You know what? Instead of trying to navigate online learning that I'm not really accustomed to, I'm just going to sit it out. I'm just going to work. I'm going to take a year or a semester off.
NADWORNY: Despite fewer students, GRCC is doing more. When staff here saw many students struggling to buy food, they quadrupled the size of their food pantry. It's now in a huge conference room.
LINA BLAIRE: We've got bags of rice, cans of beans, eggplants, squash, zucchini, cucumbers...
NADWORNY: Lina Blaire, in charge of student life here, points to piles of diapers and baby food.
BLAIRE: That's a major need. A lot of our students have kids.
NADWORNY: The college is also working on expanding access to technology for students with laptop-loaner programs and Wi-Fi parking lots. Community colleges are America's safety net, Blaire says. And now more than ever, that's what people need.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Grand Rapids, Mich.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOXTROTT'S "PATIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.