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Feb. 4, 2021, 10:37 a.m. EST

Community colleges and their students were already vulnerable. Then the pandemic hit

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By Jillian Berman

Vanessa Nuñez was supposed to graduate from Los Angeles Valley College with her associate’s degree last fall. The pandemic had other plans. 

As Nuñez has pursued her degree in child development and family studies over the past few years, she’s typically taken five or six courses per semester. But when the pandemic shut down schools last spring, she cut down her schedule so she could be available for her four boys, ages 13, 11, 7 and 6, as they navigated remote classes of their own. That meant missing out on a course she needed to graduate. 

In the fall, with elementary schools still online, Nuñez took four classes, lighter than her usual load. 

“Although they’ve always been first, this time it’s different when we’re at home, I really have to put their school first,” said Nuñez of her boys. “I have a kindergartener and a second grader who I had to go back and forth with because they needed my help.” 

Even with fewer classes than typical, “I noticed I was falling behind,” said Nuñez, who hopes to one day open her own daycare center offering quality care to students with exceptional needs. She couldn’t focus on her own studies until her husband came home from his construction job in the evening and could watch their kids. “I had to reach out constantly to my professors,” Nuñez said, noting that they were largely accommodating. 

Nuñez had originally planned to transfer to California State University, Northridge last fall. Now, she’s hopeful she can start at CalState Northridge in fall 2021 in person and that her children will go back to in-person learning too. 

The pandemic caused a drop in the number associate’s degrees earned

Nuñez is one of likely millions of students enrolled at a community college or considering it whose education was derailed by the pandemic. The number of people earning associate’s degrees for the first time dropped 6.7% year-over-year within a few months of campus shutdowns; they’re now at the lowest level since the 2012-2013 academic year, according to National Student Clearinghouse, which tracks college enrollment and completion. 

Community college students were already particularly vulnerable to the risk that a surprise medical bill or flat tire could disrupt their education. Roughly 80% balance work with school, 26% are parents and two-thirds come from households earning less than $50,000. 

The switch to remote or heavily modified in-person instruction — for both college and K-12 students — as well as the economic downturn only exacerbated their challenges in persisting in school. As of October 2020, more than 40% of households said a prospective student had cancelled all plans for community college, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. That’s compared to less than 20% of households with four-year college students who said they were cancelling their plans. 

The pandemic exposed the “many, many cracks” in our higher education and social safety net system, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of sociology at Temple University and the founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. 

For years, students have struggled to afford not only tuition, but also living expenses ; wealth inequality has meant that many students don’t have a backstop in case of financial emergency; and declining government funding has meant that programs that once paid for a large chunk of college — like the Pell Grant — barely make a dent , she said. 

But the pandemic has also put community colleges themselves at risk too. Their two main sources of funding, state investment and tuition, are likely to plummet as a result of the economic downturn. 

“I don’t see a way back for an equitable recovery if the community colleges are not able to be a big part of it,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They’re essential.” 

Overall, fall enrollment at community colleges dropped 10.1%, the National Student Clearinghouse reported in December. That’s compared to 0.2% increase at public four-year colleges, a 0.1% decline at private four-year colleges and an increase of 5.3% at four-year for-profit colleges. 

The number of students signing up for college for the first time dropped 13.1%, “an unprecedented” decline, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The 21% drop in first-time community college enrollment contributed most to the overall decrease. 

Community college leaders and policymakers worry the obstacles the pandemic has created to finishing school are having a particularly large impact on communities devastated most by COVID-19. 

“Community college presidents report to me that low-income students have disproportionately dropped out in the last six to nine months,” Robert Kaplan, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, told the Forecasters Club of New York in January, adding that it’s been particularly the case for Black and Hispanic students. 

The colleges have hired outside firms to study why, he told the group. Two of the top reasons they’re reporting, Kaplan said: I lost my job in a restaurant or a store, or I don’t have access to high-speed internet and can’t afford it.

‘It doesn’t fit the usual patterns’

The decline in enrollment runs counter to what community colleges typically see during an economic downturn. Historically, community college enrollment has surged during periods of recession as displaced workers enroll to retool their skills.

“It doesn’t fit the usual patterns,” said Matthew Reed, the vice president of academic affairs at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey. 

Reed suspects that the changes the pandemic has wrought on K-12 schooling are likely playing a role in enrollment declines among his students. 

“We have a lot of students who have school-age kids, some of them, they have to pull back because they have to be there for their kids,” he said. “I really can’t argue with that.”

Some prospective students may also be hesitant to enroll because of the largely online format, Reed said. Research pre-pandemic indicated that community college students studying online lagged behind peers who attended school in-person in class completion rates and grades. 

“We do get students saying, ‘I need a teacher in front of me,’” Reed said.

Sandra Vasquez is one of those students. She’s been working towards an associate’s degree in culinary arts since 2013 in hopes of one day opening her own catering company. 

Vasquez started the fall semester taking three classes, but she said she soon began to realize “there’s no way that I’m going to finish this semester.” She found adjusting to remote schooling challenging. In addition, Vasquez, who grew up in foster care, is also a foster parent and having a child at home also made studying online difficult. 

“It’s just a mess. I ended up dropping my classes,” she said. 

Vasquez is planning on enrolling in just one class for the spring semester in hopes that the lighter schedule will keep her from becoming overwhelmed. Though taking one class at a time will slow her progress, Vasquez said she’s determined to finish her associate’s degree. If she’s successful, “out of eight siblings, I’ll be the only one that graduated from college,” she said.  

For years, many community college leaders have worked to provide social-service resources to their students, but the pandemic necessitated a shift in approach. Nuñez has gotten a first-hand look at the challenges some of her fellow students are facing as part of her work at her school’s family resource center. 

Prior to the pandemic, Nuñez said her job would involve greeting families when they came to the center, setting up play groups and organizing in-person events where students could pick up fresh produce. Over the past several months, her duties have shifted to include delivering everything from baby essentials to gingerbread house kits to students and their children. 

Nuñez said she noticed an uptick in the number of students reaching out for help to secure food and housing, but they were also looking for more than physical sustenance. Students have sought out conversations with Nuñez, looking for “that safe place to be able to connect with someone that they can relate to,” she said.  

Community colleges are helping students sign up for unemployment benefits

The pandemic has so upended the finances of the students at Austin Community College that Karen Serna has changed the advice she gives them as the director of the school’s Student Money Management Office. 

“I tell people not to worry about your credit score anymore,” she said. “Wreck your credit now, we will get together in a year or 18 months and start to work on fixing your credit. You have to keep the roof over your head, keep your utilities on and keep food on the table.” 

Many of the students Serna works with had planned out their budgets based on the assumption that they would have a part-time job to help pay their bills. But because so many are employed in the service industry, they lost work once the pandemic hit. 

“In the beginning of the pandemic we spent a lot of time helping students access their unemployment benefits,” she said. 

In Chicago, Juan Salgado, the chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, has seen how the pandemic deepened the challenges his students were already facing. Enrollment there dropped 11.7% last fall, compared to a community college statewide average of 13.7%. 

“When you look at our students, even before the pandemic, you’ve got this economy that’s roaring, but our students are still struggling tremendously,” he said, adding that many work in the service industry, retail and the low-wage job market more broadly. “They’re in the economy but they’re still food insecure.”  

The obstacles inherent in earning enough money to afford basic needs and attending school at the same time had meant that even when students were doing well academically, they might stop their studies, Salgado said. That dynamic inspired the school to launch Fresh Start this summer, a program where students who have left City Colleges and decided to return could have their debt forgiven if they complete their credential. 

“They were working but they were just not making enough to pay down the debt and re-enroll in school and take care of life,” Salgado said. The goal of the program is to get students out of this “Catch-22,” Salgado said: “Not enough money to get back into school, but needing a credential to be able to get more money.” 

Officials had been developing the program before the pandemic, but “obviously that situation has been exacerbated, particularly for those students who have been with us in the last year,” Salgado said. 

One college opened a housing complex for students experiencing homelessness

At Cerritos College in Norwalk, Calif., administrators had been working for years on ways to help students access basic needs, like food and housing, said Dilcie Perez, vice president of student services at the school. One of those projects came to fruition just a few months after the pandemic hit. 

In June, the school opened The Village at Cerritos College, a housing complex for students experiencing homelessness. The school has received more than 200 referrals for housing assistance since The Village opened, Perez said.  

Cerritos is part of the broader California Community Colleges system, which will benefit from what’s expected to be the largest-ever philanthropic gift to a community college. In October, the Foundation for California Community Colleges, which supports the CCC system, announced they’d received a pledge of $100 million from the Jay Pritzker Foundation. 

Though the thought process of making the gift started before the pandemic, the timing of the pledge itself allowed the funds to “really meet the moment,” said Keetha Mills, the president and chief executive officer of the Foundation for California Community Colleges. 

“Our students need support now more than ever,” Mills said. “The initial gift of $5 million in the first year will be used 100% for emergency financial aid. We’re trying to get dollars in the hands of students now.” 

Part of what drew the Pritzkers to the opportunity to donate to the California Community College system was an understanding that the money would have an impact on students from underserved communities working to improve their economic mobility, Mills said. Though that could be said of community college systems across the country, a donation of this size is unprecedented. 

Prior to this donation, “we were looking at the list of the gifts over $50 million to higher education internationally and community colleges were not on that list,” said Melissa Conner, the organization’s chief advancement officer.” 

There’s disparity in philanthropic resources , but hope for possible government help

There’s a whole slew of reasons why that’s the case : Alumni of state flagship or private universities are more likely to be wealthy, there’s a certain prestige associated with having your name attached to an elite college, and the schools have robust advancement offices that make it easy for donors to give. 

The inequity in philanthropic resources is part of a broader gulf in funding available to community colleges and other types of higher education institutions — a situation that’s likely only to get worse due to the pandemic. 

Goldrick-Rab said the combination of a Democratic Congress and an administration that values the role community colleges play for both students and the broader economy — the First Lady is a community college professor — has her confident that “the world should look radically different for American higher education even within a year.” 

That shift could take place by Congress passing several bills, including one introduced by Vice President Kamala Harris when she was a U.S. Senator that would improve students’ access to food, housing and other basic needs. But in the meantime, community college leaders face an “untenable” situation, Goldrick-Rab said. 

“They don’t have much control over the fact that they’re going to face state budget cuts and they’re going to face continued loss of enrollment,” she said. “The only path here is federal.” 

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