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Community colleges face surprising enrollment decline in pandemic

Katie Tabeling

There is a running joke about community colleges that goes like this: When the economy’s down, enrollment goes up and when the economy goes up, enrollment still goes up.

But that has not been happening at Delaware Technical Community College, or at many other colleges across the country, this academic year. Del Tech, which went virtual for the fall semester except for labs, reported a 9% drop in enrollment, slightly below the national average of 10% enrollment drop for community colleges.

Students participate in a sparsely filled medical laboratory technology course. Enrollment at Del Tech, the state’s only community college, dropped about 9%, slightly under the national average. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DEL TECH

Community colleges are traditionally a low-cost path for high school graduates — and adults of all ages — to develop new skills and work toward a degree. But what Del Tech and other higher education experts are seeing is that the pandemic and its challenges are hitting their target demographic especially hard. 

“Our students may have families who are suffering economic distress because of unemployment right now, while others may be managing to get through health challenges, or are taking care of family members who are,” Del Tech President Mark Brainard said. “Then we know there’s students who just don’t thrive in an online format, where they can have more in-person conversations with instructors or study time with classmates.”

Dr. Mark T. Brainard

Mark Brainard President of Delaware Technical Community College

Higher education experts are warning that the implications of declining enrollment in workforce development, especially in low-income households and communities of color, may last longer than the pandemic itself. In a survey of roughly 13,000 students from 25 community colleges in 10 states, conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, more than a third of Black students surveyed said they lacked access to a reliable computer, compared to 24% of Latinx students and 23% of white students.

Schoolwork might not be the top priority these days, compared to household bills and getting food on the table. About 75% of Black students surveyed reported concern over having enough to eat, along with 60% of Latinx or Hispanic students and 44% of white students.

“Before the pandemic, some of these students were making it, day by day. But now they may be faced with these economic stressors. We’re seeing about half of low-income families change their college plans,” said Linda Garcia, executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at UT-Austin. “It can take time for enrollment to really swing back, and that’s concerning.”

Back in 2020 when colleges were first thrust into online education, experts speculated that students may be looking to a local or community college to reap the benefits of cheaper, in-state tuition. For in-state students, Del Tech offers under $6,000 tuition and has 200 transfer agreements with Mid-Atlantic universities and colleges.

It is still too early to track whether that is the case at Del Tech, but Delaware colleges across the board reported a drop in undergrad enrollment. As the state re-invests funding in Del Tech’s short-term certification programs through its workforce development initiative Forward Delaware, the college is training 380 students for a new career in a matter of weeks instead of months.

“I predict this time next year we’ll be having a conversation about how high enrollment is because of pent up demand and people are struggling to connect with jobs. Who does that better than community colleges?” Brainard said.

But with a drop in enrollment and a steep recession, college budgets may hurt the most, which in turn just hits students harder, higher education consultant Mark Huelsman explained.

“You can see this as two tragedies in one,” said Huelsman, a policy fellow at the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. “People who don’t enroll will miss the opportunity to develop their skills and tap into earning potential. And those who do, now or after the pandemic, they may be at institutions with deep budget cuts that may not be as hard as it would be at other institutions.”

“Bottom line, student’s lives are on hold right now,” he continued. “And when they return, there may be fewer resources for them.”

Del Tech’s budget is 44% funded from the state, with 20% coming from students’ credit tuition and fees. The remaining breakdown is 25% percent from federal student aid and grants, 9% from other campus operations, and 2% from workforce development and community education.

For Fiscal Year 2021, Brainard submitted a budget of $88.9 million, with a $2.2 million increase, to the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee. He described the proposal as a “carryover year,” and balanced the increased costs of technology with freezing hiring in facilities and laying off some of its public safety staff.

Even though technology and hybrid learning may be around after the pandemic subsides, Garcia cautioned community colleges to start thinking about setting up support systems to lift students up in the digital age to limit who gets left behind.

“Relationships can be game changing. That ability to meet a student and help guide them through the college experience and know their circumstances. We should think of education as holistic; one area affects all, and those relationships can offer the support a student needs to graduate,” she said.


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