Community colleges get creative to attract students, address enrollment hurdles

Seeking to stem enrollment declines and remove access barriers for students, community colleges are intensifying their outreach and offering targeted incentives. While many are focused on alleviating the digital divide, other institutions are banking on scholarships and high-touch communications to attract new learners and re-enroll those who paused their education, Inside Higher Ed reports.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “community colleges remain the worst-hit sector by COVID-19.” In fall 2020, the sector saw a 13 percent drop in freshman enrollment. New spring numbers show overall enrollment down 9.5 percent compared with the prior year, with even steeper declines among Black, Latinx, and Native American students.

Incentives target financial hurdles

Hoping to address financial hurdles that delay or derail students’ college enrollment, some two-year institutions are pairing scholarship offerings with technology incentives. In Montana, the tribal community college Little Big Horn College will supplement full-tuition scholarships—available to all students through fall 2021—with tablets or laptops, provided that students complete a list of enrollment tasks such as filing the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA). The devices are equipped with access to free course materials, another expense that can strain student finances.

Similarly, The Christian Science Monitor reports that Texas-based San Antonio College has been offering students laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots, in conjunction with a tuition-free program targeting students at local high schools.

Recognizing that some students are hesitant to pursue college at a time when many colleges are still operating virtually, Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin has launched a “College Try” program that allows students to test out classes for free in the first week of the term and loans them a laptop and Wi-Fi hotspot for the duration of their course enrollment. “It’s about squashing those insecurities and letting people know they can try out the class, they can meet the instructor, they can know that there’s this amazing support system for them,” Chelsey Bowers, the school’s marketing manager, told Inside Higher Ed.

Free summer courses provide an on-ramp

Larisa Hussak, director of the Community College Executive Forum at education research firm EAB, says a growing number of community colleges are marketing free summer programs. Northern Virginia Community College, for instance, grants two free summer courses to graduating high school seniors participating in its dual-enrollment program.

Maine’s seven-campus community college system, meanwhile, is offering graduating seniors admitted to one of its schools a free summer course. “We really wanted to speak to the Class of 2021 and say, ‘If you have a plan, if you have a goal or if you have an intention, we want to support that intention,’” says Mercedes Pour, the system’s director of college access. “All of the things that COVID did to our country, those things happened to community college students and their families almost disproportionately,” she adds.

Communication crucial to build trust, awareness

Last fall, researchers asked around 5,000 community college students whether their institution offered support services to address pandemic-related stressors; nearly 60 percent of respondents didn’t know. Communication about available resources is crucial to increasing enrollment and retention, experts say.

Los Angeles City College credits outreach with helping it to retain nearly all of last year’s students. Upon noticing that a number of existing students hadn’t yet registered for the new term, the college mobilized more than 100 volunteers to call each student, check in, and connect them with needed resources. The institution also held frequent virtual town halls and a centralized student hotline.

The effort “reminded us of why we’re really here,” says Armineh Dereghishian, Los Angeles City College’s acting dean of outreach and student life. “We’re here for the students and to help them succeed.”

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