Community colleges around the country are feeling dire impacts from the pandemic this fall, reporting enrollment drops of over 9% from last year, a national study shows.
But the number of people taking classes at the Community College of Vermont is almost the same now as it was a year ago.
CCV’s unduplicated count of fall 2020 enrollees — a figure that leaves out people also taking classes at other institutions — sits at 5,102, according to data shared with VTDigger by the Vermont State Colleges. That’s just two fewer students than last fall’s unduplicated count of 5,104.
The nationwide dip in community college enrollment is part of a broader enrollment drop across American higher education, according to the study, published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on Oct. 15. It shows undergraduate enrollment at American colleges dropped 4% this fall.
While fall enrollment dropped at other institutions — including public four-year colleges and private, nonprofit four-year schools — community colleges numbers declined the most.
Nationally, the pandemic-induced recession “is so severe because it not only undercuts the ability of families to pay for their education, but it attacks first the very jobs that community college students and their families typically have to make ends meet,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center; he studies community college enrollment trends in the Northeast and nationally.
CCV has fared better than the national trend in part because of two hefty funding sources, one from the McClure Foundation and the other drawn from federal coronavirus relief funds. Together, they are covering the cost of CCV classes for more than 1,000 students this fall, according to CCV President Joyce Judy.
The McClure Foundation, a local nonprofit that works to improve postsecondary education access, in June promised one free CCV course to each of the 5,000 members of Vermont’s high school class of 2020. CCV students pay $280 per credit, plus a $100 administrative fee.
About 600 high school graduates accepted that offer and enrolled in CCV classes this fall, a figure that shattered expectations and illustrates the effects of taking cost barriers out of higher education, Judy said.
“If we remove cost from the equation, we see a lot more people willing and interested who want to continue their education,” Judy said.
An additional 428 people signed up for CCV courses through the $2.3 million CRF-funded State Colleges Initiative, which covered the cost of a Vermont state college course for anyone whose job was lost to the pandemic. That figure hasn’t been included in CCV’s unduplicated enrollment count.
CCV’s enrollment numbers are “fluid,” Judy said, and the final count of students enrolled this fall — including students aided by the coronavirus relief funds, and students who are also taking courses elsewhere — could even exceed last fall’s overall count.
CCV, which functions as one of four Vermont state colleges, has 12 campuses in nearly every corner of the state, from Winooski to Newport to Brattleboro.
It serves the second-largest number of students, after UVM, of any higher education institution in the state, 95% of whom were Vermonters and 67% of whom were women in 2019. Eighty-three percent of CCV students had full- or part-time jobs, and 21% were minorities.
The reasons for CCV’s steady enrollment numbers in a college semester unlike any other go beyond the extra funding, Judy said. She pointed to CCV’s familiarity with online learning prior to the pandemic — it held up to 50% of its classes online during a typical semester pre-Covid — as a key to its ability to provide Vermonters certainty in their education once the Zoom era began.
All but 25 of this fall’s 700 CCV courses are remote.
“When Covid hit in March, 50% of our classes had been online,” Judy said. “Those 50% could continue uninterrupted, and we only had to figure out new options for the other 50%.”
Another factor in CCV’s favor, at a time when job status is less certain than before the pandemic: CCV tries to build course catalogs that reflect what community college students think they need to learn, based on the business environment of the moment, Judy said.
“We put out a course list three times per year, and if it’s not what the public wants, they don’t register,” she said.
Community college enrollment has been declining
While this fall brought sharp enrollment declines for community colleges nationwide, they had already been plagued by steady declines over the past several years. CCV enrollment has been on the decline since 2012, in line with the national trend, enrollment data show.
CCV spokesperson Katie Keszey said demographic changes — such as Vermont’s declining birthrate and a steady drop in public school enrollment — are key factors that pushed CCV enrollment down between 2012 and now.
“I think we’ve also been impacted by low unemployment rates, a relatively low state appropriation (which causes tuition to climb), and the value of a college education coming into question, given ever-rising costs,” Keszey wrote in an email to VTDigger.
Indeed, Vermont regularly has one of the highest community college tuition rates nationwide, Jenkins said, due in part to state funding priorities. The state budget covers roughly 18% of CCV’s annual budget, Judy said, leaving CCV to cover around 80% of its budget in tuition — a figure that’s flipped in many states.
Growing competition with four-year colleges — which in Vermont have struggled themselves to maintain enrollment in recent years — and increasing returns from bachelor’s degrees aren’t helping community college enrollment in the Green Mountain State and beyond, Jenkins said.
“If people need bachelor’s degrees and the public regional four-years, the nonprofit less-selective, and the for-profits are swooping in, there are a lot of options for students other than community college,” he said.
Jenkins suggested that high tuition costs may actually have worked in CCV’s favor this fall in keeping enrollment steady, as students in Vermont might be accustomed to hefty tuition fees and would therefore be less deterred by cost during the pandemic.
One especially bright spot from this year’s numbers: The 600 students taking CCV classes through McClure funding effectively doubled the number of first-year students enrolled in CCV classes compared to last year, Judy said.
That figure bucks one of the more alarming trends captured by the Clearinghouse study. Enrollment among first-time students at public two-year colleges between 18 and 20 years old declined by as much as 20% this fall compared to last, it shows, one of the starkest drops in any demographic.
As the pandemic continues and uncertainty persists in the higher education world, though, Jenkins worries that the continuing recession will further the enrollment effects on community colleges.
“Next spring and fall, there may be some recovery, but in general we think this recession is only going to accelerate the forces that were driving down community college enrollment, creating a further gulf between the education haves and have-nots,” he said.
Judy hopes that the number of students who took advantage of both the McClure and CRF funding can serve as a benchmark for what removing cost barriers to higher education can do for access to that education.
“When you remove cost from the equation, you see a lot more students taking advantage of their education,” Judy said. “I think that can be a message to Vermonters, a message to our Legislature and a message to our policymakers.”
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