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Community colleges hit hard by the pandemic

Erika Beras Jan 25, 2021
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Steep declines in both enrollment numbers and state budgets are hurting community colleges. Mike Coppola/Getty Images
COVID-19

Community colleges hit hard by the pandemic

Erika Beras Jan 25, 2021
Heard on:
Steep declines in both enrollment numbers and state budgets are hurting community colleges. Mike Coppola/Getty Images
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College and university enrollment has been going down since the pandemic started last year, especially so at two-year community colleges. In the fall of 2020, community college enrollment sank nearly 10%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

When job losses started climbing last Spring, Kathy Ulibarri, the director of New Mexico Independent Community Colleges, expected what’d she seen in other recessions — more people out of work would mean higher enrollment, as people began to seek out new job skills.

“The pandemic turned all of that on its head,” Ulibarri said. “We saw unemployment spiking in our state. But the students were not coming to the colleges.”

In New Mexico alone, enrollment in the fall dropped by 15%, and this semester it’s expected to drop another 12%. 

That’s because this isn’t a typical recession. Justin Ortagus, a professor of higher education at the University of Florida, said community colleges often attract students who are on the fence about continuing school.

“So if you’re considering college or not, and you’re in the midst of a pandemic, where the economy is kind of at a standstill, you may not be as excited to go earn that credential to prepare yourself for the labor market,” Ortagus said.

That’s especially true when so many people aren’t quite laid off — they’re furloughed and expecting to return to jobs.

Ulibarri said there’s another factor: “Our public schools, in large part, went to either hybrid or remote learning. And so our students who are parents found themselves in a position of having to stay home to help manage their own children’s education.”

Community colleges are also public institutions. They’re dependent on state funding which is based in part on enrollment. Now those numbers are down, and state budgets aren’t doing so well.

“The storm right now for community colleges is a perfect one. It’s actually very terrible financially for them,” said Jackson Nell, an analyst at EAB, a consulting firm.

Nell said these colleges never really recovered from lost funding during the Great Recession.  He also worries that people who don’t enroll now may never do so, especially those from communities of color. Their enrollment is down by 30%. 

“What will happen is you could have kind of a tremendous skill gap that exists both in the short term, but becomes increasingly more acute over time,” Nell said.  

Both Nell and Ulibarri said that even after the economy stabilizes, community college will not be the first priority for prospective students.

“They’re going to be looking for opportunities to get back to work to support their families and stabilize themselves financially,” Ulibarri said. 

And that may translate to more lean years for community colleges. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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