The Effects of COVID on Community Colleges and Students

Overall college enrollment declined during COVID, but community colleges were hit the hardest.

October 13, 2021

The Effects of COVID on Community Colleges and Students

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When COVID hit, thousands of prospective students — 603,000 in the U.S. — put their plans on pause. In spring 2021, overall enrollment at American higher education institutions dropped by 3.5%, seven times greater than the same period in 2020. But the number of students enrolled at community colleges fell by a larger margin: almost 10% compared to the same period in 2020.

Starting summer of 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau began to survey households every two weeks to show the relationship between enrollment at community colleges and COVID. By October 2020, more than 40% of households reported a prospective student had canceled all plans for community college. This was more than double the rate of traditional four-year college students. An additional 15% took fewer classes or switched programs.

This result comes as somewhat of a surprise to economists. During previous periods of widespread financial hardship, enrollment at community colleges increased. Workers returned to classrooms to learn new skills to take to the job market. However, unlike previous recessions, COVID presents a threat to public health. And it has not affected different demographics proportionately.

Risk of exposure to COVID increases based on the neighborhood you live in and economic stability. It also increases based on your physical environment, housing situation, and occupation. As a result, ethnic minorities, especially Black and Hispanic/Latino people, have a much higher risk of contracting and dying from the virus.

Low-income people and minorities also make up a significant proportion of students at community colleges. About 67% of community college students come from low-income families. Forty-five percent of those students are people of color. Experts say this could significantly contribute to the lag in enrollment at community colleges.

The Sudden Transition to Online

The abrupt move from in-person to digital learning, another by-product of the effects of COVID on community colleges, could also discourage enrollment.

"If you think about the kinds of programs that community colleges offer, a lot of them are very hands-on, particularly for students interested in workforce training," Dr. Thomas Brock, a nationally recognized higher education researcher and director of the Community College Research Center, told Affordable Colleges Online.

"Many students go to community college to become a nurse, or an EMT worker, or to get a welding degree. None of those kinds of courses or programs lend themselves very well to online instruction."

Even lecture-based courses proved difficult for community colleges to move online for a few different reasons. Examples include a lack of pre-existing digital infrastructure and professors' inexperience teaching online.

Four-year institutions navigated the transition to online learning in COVID well overall. Many of them already offered online classes or had digital aspects integrated into their academic programs. But many community colleges were taken off-guard, resulting in a rough transition at some schools.

"In general, community colleges didn't do a lot of [online teaching prior to the pandemic], so they really had to scramble a bit," Dr. Brock said. "There was a bigger learning curve than at four-year schools."

Some of the community college students themselves also struggled more than four-year college students. Traditional university students usually fall in the 18-24 age bracket, which has a greater level of comfort with technology, on average, than older generations. Community college students represent a more diverse group of students in terms of age and economic backgrounds.

But more than a question of computer literacy, community college students also lack access to the internet in greater numbers than traditional college students. A survey from New America found that 20% of community college student respondents who quit during the pandemic did not have access to the internet besides their smartphones.

This figure is significant on its own but could underestimate the true magnitude of the issue. Firstly, if the survey itself was conducted online, there's a good chance that many of those without easily accessible internet did not participate. Also, it does not consider the number of households with internet access sharing one computer among other family members. This could create conflict.

"They're a lower income group in general, so they may not have the best internet access or the best computers at home. Or they may have internet access and a computer, but they have kids in the house who are in school [online] and everyone is competing for that one computer," Dr. Brock said.

"We think that created more challenges for this population than for the more traditional four-year college student population, where chances are they're a bit better off, economically, and often have more resources to support online education."

A Return to In-Person?

Depending on the area of the country, community colleges and COVID reactions differed. Some smaller schools maintained in-person classes throughout the pandemic, like Klamath Community College, located in a rural area of Oregon. Larger schools, which tend to fall in more populated areas, more often moved classes online.

Over the summer of 2021, colleges began to announce their plans for the fall semester. This proved a difficult task with the growing concern about the contagious Delta variant. As it spreads, it could cause plans to change. Schools' strategies for how to proceed vary widely, but many will take a hybrid approach. For example, some schools will limit their in-person offerings only to subjects that students cannot feasibly learn online.

While many traditional universities now require students to get vaccinated in order to attend in-person classes, so far, this has been less common among community colleges.

Some community colleges in majoritively blue states — namely California, Connecticut, Maine, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington — now require students to get vaccinated to attend in-person classes. But almost all accept religious and medical exemptions.

"The four-year sector and private institutions have tended to adopt stricter policies that everyone returning must be vaccinated," Dr. Brock said. "I think for community colleges, it's harder for them to set those kinds of rules, partly just because of the kinds of institutions they are. [Being] open access is sometimes part of the community college's mission. So any kind of policy that would say, 'some folks are not permitted,' even for a health reason, may just be a difficult thing to swallow."

Changes to Financial Aid

In general, community colleges receive less funding than traditional four-year schools — about $8,800 less per student. That adds up to a $78 billion discrepancy between the two sectors.

The CARES Act, signed in March of 2020, provided resources to help colleges with emergency relief to students. But unfortunately, funding again favored full-time students, leaving community college students at a disadvantage. More than half of community college students attend part-time.

"Congress was trying to act quickly. I don't think this was ill intended. They came up with a formula to try to be fair to all institutions, but it was based on full-time enrollment and community colleges just have a whole lot more part-time students than four-year colleges and universities," Dr. Brock said.

Advocates pressured Congress to provide more money for colleges serving low-income students. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced an additional $21.2 billion that would benefit community college students in mid-January of 2021. "That was a really important fix," Dr. Brock said.

This aid is separate from traditional federal financial aid, which also remained in place. Whereas, "with the CARES Act, it really was intended more as emergency relief for students in more desperate circumstances."

The influx in funding has been a boon to community colleges. "The ED did provide guidance in terms of what was allowable, but there was flexibility at the institutional level and exactly what those dollars went toward," Dr. Brock said.

"Some took action to help students with personnel expenses to help them stay in school, particularly if they had job loss. Some colleges forgave student loan debt. Some colleges purchased laptops, for instance, for students who needed them to support distance learning."

Federal student loan payments and involuntary collections have also been paused through January of 2022, which has eased community college students' financial situations.

Experts predict that the effect of COVID on community colleges could reverberate in the form of lower graduation rates for at least the next few years.

"I would not be surprised if completion rates go down, at least for the short term, until things really get back to normal and students are attending full-time or close to full-time like they were prior to the pandemic," Dr. Brock said.

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