What’s ahead for community colleges amid pandemic uncertainty?

As college students weigh their education options for the fall, experts have differing opinions on what the future holds for community colleges. Some predict that two-year public institutions will see a boom in enrollment as students seek less expensive learning opportunities closer to home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others say that lingering uncertainty about resuming in-person classes, along with dips in high school graduation and FAFSA-completion rates, could limit any uptick. 

But even if throngs of students turn to community colleges, those institutions “can only offer a high-quality and affordable education when the government does its part in providing a reliable stream of financial support,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice and a professor at Temple University, writes in The Atlantic. Calling community colleges “the neglected stepchildren of higher education” Goldrick-Rab says the institutions have been “overlooked, asked to do more with less every day,” impeding their ability to provide an educational safety net during times of crisis.

Potential to preserve educational opportunity

With their ubiquitous presence and varied offerings, community colleges are uniquely positioned to support students who need to “live at home and help their families survive this tough economic time,” Goldrick-Rab says. They also offer an appealing alternative to four-year institutions for students seeking to complete general education requirements online, The Hechinger Report notes. Community colleges charge $3,660, on average, in tuition and fees, almost a third of the in-state cost of four-year public institutions, approximately a seventh of the cost of out-of-state public schools, and around a tenth of the cost of private institutions. 

Recent surveys indicate that students are taking note. One in 10 high school seniors who, before the pandemic, were planning to attend a four-year college or university say they have since changed their minds, with nearly half planning to enroll at community college instead.

Some schools have already seen increased enrollment. Lake Tahoe Community College in California, for instance, reported a four percent increase in student-transfers to the college during the spring quarter. Others are positioning for an influx, creating programs for new and returning local students whose finances have been hurt by the pandemic.

Transfer hurdles, critical uncertainties could hamper enrollment

Still, some students with their eye on a four-year degree may be wary about the hurdles and risks involved with transferring credits. Some four-year schools may require students to complete the equivalent of an associate’s degree before transferring or may require those who defer admission offers to reapply later.

Community college administrators should not expect the same enrollment bump from this pandemic-induced economic downturn as they saw during the Great Recession, writes EAB. The current crisis has brought not only financial strain but also uncertainty surrounding the availability of in-person instruction, rising high school dropout rates, decreasing FAFSA completion, and insufficient federal incentives to encourage college enrollment.

Experts urge longer-term planning to retain students

Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, says that community colleges facing this rapidly shifting landscape must be more strategic about student retention. He told The Hechinger Report that community colleges must “move from offering cheap courses to offering affordable programs with strong support for students” as they look to transfer and build marketable credentials. Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts, told Boston.com that the expansion of higher education beyond in-person teaching will mean that students need both technology and “[h]olistic support that wraps around them.” 

Most community colleges plan to remain at least partially virtual in the fall, recognizing the logistical hurdles and expense of screening students for COVID-19 symptoms. Community colleges also do not rely heavily on room and board and athletics revenue, notes Inside Higher Ed. Even still, campuses are considering how to offer labs and technical courses in person while maintaining social distancing and safety. 

Calls for major investments at all levels

According to EAB, community colleges looking to step up in the current environment should work to increase local students’ FAFSA completion; craft customized marketing campaigns targeting high school students living with their parents, recently unemployed gig workers, and aspiring health care workers; and maximize programs that fill emerging labor market needs for home health aides, nurses, and more.

Federal, state, and local investment in community colleges also will be critical, says Goldrick-Rab. Noting that two-year institutions were shorted by the CARES Act, Goldrick-Rab says “it’s imperative that the federal government enact another round of all-inclusive emergency funding specifically for community colleges.” Community colleges educate more than half of the nation’s low-income students but received just 27 percent of CARES Act funds. To survive major disruptions and enrollment fluctuations, community colleges need legislators to provide both emergency and long-term funding, Goldrick-Rab says. Community colleges “are an undeniably crucial part of our nation’s recovery from the pandemic,” she writes, adding that “If community colleges are going to lift up and support the 7 million students they serve, the federal government must step up to ensure their survival.”

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