Rural community colleges see declining enrollment due to pandemic

When the economy collapsed in 2007, community college enrollment skyrocketed, increasing 33% between 2006 and 2011, according to the US Census Bureau. The two-year programs offered people a haven from the ravages of the job market, while giving them the opportunity to learn new skills, update old ones, and retrain for an uncertain economic future.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about similar economic problems, but unlike the Great Recession, community college enrollments are plummeting, falling 9.5% last year, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Although college enrollment declined 4.5% on average across all types of institutions, the declines were most pronounced for rural community colleges (-9.9%) and urban community colleges (-10 , 3%).

The data also suggests that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on rural students. Last December, the National College Attainment Network reported that the number of rural students who completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), an important indicator of students’ intentions to go to college, fell by more than 18%, 2 percentage points lower than those of urban students.

In a report by the Association of Community College Trustees, Rachel Rush-Marlowe described several of the reasons why rural students are less likely to attend college than their urban and suburban peers. These include financial barriers; Household incomes in rural areas were 20% lower than in non-rural areas before the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a 2017 report from the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. This economic disparity has likely widened further over the past year, as many small rural businesses have closed and rural unemployment rates have exceeded the national average.

Rural students are also more likely to be first-generation college students and are less likely to perceive a college degree as a high priority. In addition, “attending university is often seen as a barrier to full-time work, and those who attend school may be seen as selfish, a burden on their family, or shirking real responsibility.” Rush-Marlowe wrote in the report.

These barriers have always existed for the estimated 600 to 800 rural community colleges across the country (competing definitions of rural at the federal level make it difficult to estimate the exact number). But the Covid-19 pandemic has made these problems worse.

One of the challenges is that the regular outreach and recruitment routes of rural community colleges have been hampered by the pandemic. “Their recruitment before the pandemic relied on using in-person sites such as local clubs, churches and high school football games,” Rush-Marlowe wrote. “Without local television or radio stations, and with the cancellation of in-person events, many rural colleges found themselves with few methods of promoting their services.”

Perhaps the most important factor is that the pandemic has been particularly harsh on some of the demographics that make up a significant portion of rural community college students, especially high school students enrolled in dual credit programs and students who raise families.

“The pandemic just hit those who were already very stretched out, and just stretched them further,” Leslie Daugherty said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. Daugherty works with the Education Design Lab’s BRIDGES Rural project, an initiative dedicated to strengthening rural community colleges.

She explained that many rural community colleges get a high percentage of their enrollments from high school students who participate in dual credit programs. But when high schools moved online classes, it cut that enrollment path.

Virtual learning has also been extremely disruptive for students who are the primary caregivers of their children or younger siblings. “They are already trying to go to school, work and raise a family. And then with the pandemic and the kids coming home, now they have to be a teacher or a facilitator, ”Daugherty said. “Parents are juggling so much already, and at some point something has to fall.”

The challenges of virtual learning are also exacerbated by poor rural broadband access. Roy Silver, professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC) and board member of the Rural Community College Alliance (RCCA) said in an interview that of the 1,900 students enrolled in SKCTC, more than 300 do have no reliable internet access, preventing them from participating in online learning. Even when students and teachers have access to it, the signal may not be strong enough to support multiple video calls, which is a hindrance when multiple household members are trying to learn, teach, or work from home.

Job losses and layoffs during the pandemic also deeply affected the financial math of students. For students who were working part-time or full-time to pay for their courses, suspending their studies became the only option. “When it comes to conversations about putting food on the table or paying for your college courses, it’s not an easy decision, but it’s the only decision you have,” said Daugherty.

The decline in enrollment at rural community colleges is a worrying trend for rural higher education as a whole. Rural community colleges “have a relative monopoly on higher education” in rural areas, Silver said. Indeed, the workforce development training and transferable education (skills that can be used in a variety of roles and occupations) provided by community colleges, and the “cheaper, more privacy and proximity ”they offer are particularly valuable for rural students. , he said.

Silver pointed out that community colleges are the main regional employers. Schools are also known to provide community support, including food and clothing banks, childcare, and mental and physical health services, which can be particularly difficult to access in rural areas.

Additionally, community college presidents, faculty and staff are often deeply involved in local government as well as economic development initiatives, including organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, regional hospitals and clinics, city councils. , school boards and even small league teams.

“On the education front, we deliver intimate, student-centered transfer professional education,” said Silver. “Plus, to use economic terms in what we do, our communities benefit from our social and human capital services. “

About Keneth T. Graves

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