Community and college leaders grapple with an uncertain future

Enrollment at community colleges took off during the pandemic, and many institutions have since struggled to recover. At a recent gathering in New York, college leaders discussed a variety of strategies to recruit and retain more students, including increasing athletic programs, improving marketing materials, offering more support to students and being more explicit with prospective students about how their college degrees will be earned. take directly to work.

“Community colleges were designed to accept students; now is the time for them to become student recruiters,” said Tom Green, director of strategic enrollment management at technology company Salesforce, during a panel discussion.

But even with the right strategies in place, it’s unclear whether colleges can overcome the pandemic’s long-term economic and mental health impacts, the overall decline in high school graduation rates and growing skepticism about the value of postsecondary education.

The Community College Trustees Association’s annual leadership conference in New York City last week was titled “Improving Lives for Healthy Families” to highlight the idea that open-access public colleges are important educational and economic stepping stones for millions of people. students, especially low-income, first-generation students, as well as working adults.

A strong economy and other factors led to a slow decline in community college enrollment since it peaked in the fall of 2011, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics presented by Green. Things got much worse during the pandemic, though it’s not entirely clear why, since community college enrollments typically increase during recessions. Higher education experts have theorized that the lack of Internet access, the lack of childcare for working adults and the loss of service sector jobs prevented many students from attending university at the time.

Since then, an improving economy has exacerbated admissions problems as students opt for higher-paying jobs over tuition. In the spring semester of 2022, there were almost 8 percent fewer people enrolled in community colleges than in the spring of 2021. A year earlier, it had fallen by 10 percent.

When institutions ask how can they afford to invest in student support, we ask how can they not?

For some colleges, several factors have reduced enrollment over the past decade. At North Shore Community College in Massachusetts, declining high school graduation rates, the impact of the pandemic and recent high demand for entry-level staff have led to a 50% drop in enrollment over the past decade. said JD LaRock, chairman of the college’s board of trustees.

“It’s a reality we’ve lived with in New England for quite some time,” LaRock said.

Community colleges can no longer afford to take a passive approach to enrollment management, said administrators and industry consultants who suggested a variety of ways to improve student recruitment and retention.

Green, who is also a former enrollment management administrator, recommended that colleges develop more sophisticated marketing and communications plans so that students understand the institution’s capabilities. For example, they might hire someone specifically to recruit for the military if the college is located near a base, or make sure that high school students in a dual enrollment program have an “authentic” opportunity to interact with college faculty and students.

Athletics are an important part of student enrollment and retention at Iowa Western Community College, President Dan Kinney Jr. explained in another session. More than 850 of the campus’ 1,300 traditional-age students are athletes and help add diversity, he said. About one-third of Iowa Western’s students are students of color, according to College Scorecard data. That’s more than double the state’s non-white population.

Kinney said Iowa Western has also added an eSports program and that has coincided with a more than 40 percent increase in computer-information technology students.

Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio has focused on re-enrolling students who dropped out in recent years, said Angela Johnson, vice president of access and graduation. Johnson told attendees that Cuyahoga used federal Covid aid money to pay overdue payments for 3,100 students, and nearly a quarter of that group has re-enrolled.

Short-term programs, lasting just eight weeks, are also very popular this year, Johnson said, and have grown more than 20 percent.

One major challenge in implementing new programs and marketing is how community colleges can afford such efforts, given the continued decline in tuition and typically lower state aid compared to public universities.

Institutions have in some cases found creative ways to cover their costs. When the federal government suspended student loan payments, Cuyahoga Community College used money it had budgeted for student debt collection and put it toward marketing to get students to re-enroll, Johnson said.

Even a small investment in student success can have a profound impact, said Larry Hogan, vice president of partnerships at Edquity, a technology company that helps colleges distribute emergency financial aid. Hogan said an emergency grant of just $250 doubled the graduation rate of high school students in dual courses.

“When institutions ask how can they afford to invest in student support, we ask how can they not?” he said.

Another unanswered question for many at the conference was whether their efforts could help students and families overcome the long-term financial, physical and mental effects of the pandemic that prevent them from succeeding or attending college.

“Many students are underprepared, engaged and unmotivated post-pandemic,” was one conclusion of a survey of association members conducted before the meeting.

Margaret McMenamin, president of Union County College in New Jersey, said she is concerned that isolation during the pandemic has caused potential students to avoid any interaction with society: “Our biggest competition is that they don’t disappear.”

Michael A. Baston, president of Cuyahoga Community College, said low unemployment and rising wages continue to be the main cause of admissions problems at many community colleges. “There was a time when people worked during school,” Baston said, but now they fit their school schedules around work.

But beneath that, he says, is a new and troubling skepticism about the value of higher education — one that undermines the message that college helps whole families. Generation Z and millennials are seeing what their parents and siblings have endured while racking up student debt, Baston said, and have decided that work is a better option now.

Baston said younger generations are asking, “Why would I take out all these loans for a four-year degree that didn’t pay off?”

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