Pandemic-era community college enrollment sees dip, not growth

COVID-19

ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) — Historically, during economic downfalls, college enrollment rates for community colleges rise. Yet, community colleges in the Southern Tier are seeing the exact opposite.

“We were hoping when COVID first hit that we would see that bump in enrollment that typically comes with economic downturns, but it never materialized,” said Bill Mulaney, President of Corning Community College (CCC).

Data has shown enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities is projected to fall by another 500,000 undergraduate students this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This continues the historic drop that began at the start of the pandemic.

Typically when the economy is doing poorly, as it has been during the pandemic, enrollment rates at community colleges rise, according to Robert Franek, editor in chief of the Princeton Review. Usually, there is a lack of jobs in an economic downturn, and students who opt to go back to school choose a local, less-expensive community college.

“It’s not a normal recession,” said Mulaney. “We’re competing against a lot of jobs in the region.”

Despite these projections, local community colleges and community colleges around the country are experiencing even worse drops in enrollment than public universities. CCC reported a 3.5% decline and Elmira College even steeper at a 10% to 15% decline since the pandemic began.

In a conventional economic recession, job openings aren’t surging to record highs. According to the latest data from the Department of Labor, there were 10.9 million openings at the end of July and 10.4 million at the end of August.

“People are thinking, ‘What’s the return on investment, at the end of the day? Does it make sense to go to school right now, or does it make sense to work for a couple of years?'” explained Matthew Burr, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Elmira College.

Plus, some of the pandemic’s most intense effects have been on the groups who generally attend community college. “When you look at the overall numbers, the students and the families that were most significantly impacted by the pandemic tend to be those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum,” said Eric Sykes, VP for Enrollment Management at Elmira College. “Community colleges…are having a harder time getting students they enrolled in prior years.”

Colleges may have to reevaluate how they attract students. “Colleges are going to have to rethink the academic model and figure out what’s going to attract and retain students,” said Burr. “If colleges aren’t willing to evolve and change they aren’t going to be in business.”

CCC plans on restrategizing which age group they are marketing to. College officials also believe that enrollment is cyclical, with the expectation of the younger generation coming back when they are older.

“If history holds we’ll see an upturn in enrollment…Part of our strategic enrollment management is to market and program more aggressively for the nontraditional students, you know, 25 and above…More evening and weekend classes,” said Mulaney. “I think that’s really the future of community college.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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