Preventing a “Lost Generation” of Community College Learners

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

Monroe Community College Cafeteria, all seats at round tables empty, yellow overhead lighting

Photo by David Maiolo via Wikimedia

Community colleges have long served as an accessible and affordable post-secondary pathway to better jobs for high school graduates and adults looking to upskill. For example, the median weekly earnings for someone with an associate’s degree are 17% higher than for those with only a high school diploma or a GED. Community colleges are particularly important for traditionally underserved students: compared to students at four-year colleges, community college students are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college, to be from a low-income family, and to be members of racial or ethnic minority groups. 

This is one reason why the steep declines in community college enrollment this fall are especially troubling. According to newly released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), undergraduate enrollments across the country are down 4.0 percent compared to the same time last year, with the biggest losses being at community colleges, where enrollments declined by 9.4 percent, on fall enrollments. 

Before the pandemic, there were approximately 5.5 million students enrolled in community college nationally. A 9.4 percent enrollment decrease equals about 520,000 students that have “stopped out” of community college, at least temporarily. This group of students is at risk of being a “lost generation” of learners. Dr. Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping community colleges become leaders in their communities, told The Well News: “The pandemic, if we are unable to find students we lost and keep students we serve, and open up new access points for new students, will result in a lost generation of learners that will hurt the economic and civic fabrics of the communities our colleges serve.” 

Why are more community college students “stopping out” of college relative to four-year students? We know from our work that, in aggregate, community college students often face more barriers on their road to completion. This excerpt from an April NEA Today article sheds some light:

Students who are first-generation, who are on financial aid, who face challenges around hunger, housing, transportation, and who are balancing work, childcare, and more, “they are all being adversely affected in ways that make those inequities more stark and more exacerbated,” says [Kurt Meyer, an English professor at Irvine Valley College in California and president of the South Orange County Community College District Faculty Association], who notes a five-fold increase in South Orange County college students recently applying for emergency funds to pay rent, fix cars, and more.

One major challenge is that many community colleges were struggling financially even before the pandemic and are likely to see further financial challenges as a result of the pandemic. Not only are many schools facing losses of income from reduced enrollment and unexpected refunds, but many are facing additional financial challenges caused by cuts in state funding. Lakeland Community College in Ohio, for example, will lose over $780,000 in state funding by the end of June 2020 and expects to lose over $4 million for the fiscal year ending in 2021. Similar cases can be found around the country, and many community colleges have been forced to furlough and lay off faculty and staff.

So, what can leaders do to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of students to COVID disruptions and increasingly tight financial constraints? 

  • State and federal policymakers should ensure that any future federal stimulus includes funds for community colleges to cover expected temporary enrollment shortfalls and provide resources and support to students in need (e.g., emergency grants).
  • Community colleges must do everything they can do find students that have “stopped out,” understand their reasons and needs, and seek to re-enroll them in their programs. This could include technology assistance (e.g., devices, internet access), financial assistance (e.g., emergency grants) help identifying childcare, and/or increased advising support. 
  • School districts may have the opportunity to partner with colleges to identify and connect with students that have stopped out and support them to re-enroll.
  • Local nonprofits that provide student supports can bring much needed capacity to community colleges to support outreach and student support efforts.
  • Local funders can provide immediate financial assistance to fund emergency grant programs or provide grants to community-based organizations to sustain or expand their services.

To ensure we don’t lose a whole generation of learners, community colleges and their partners must act now to identify, connect with, and support these students.

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

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