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Community colleges continue major enrollment decline

Large numbers of students left school during the pandemic and never came back

Montgomery College's campus in Rockville, Md., in December 2020. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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At Northern Virginia Community College, a preliminary fall count of students showed enrollment slid 5 percent since just before the coronavirus pandemic began. At Prince George’s Community College, it fell 10 percent. At Montgomery College, it plunged 19 percent.

These schools, major gateways to higher education in the Washington suburbs, reflect a challenge that has emerged in sharp relief since fall 2019: The public health crisis and economic and social upheaval of the past two years have led to significant enrollment declines at community colleges around the country.

The trend, pronounced last year, deepened in many places in 2021. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found nearly 15 percent fewer students at the nation’s public two-year colleges in the fall compared with two years earlier. That has profound ramifications for the education and career prospects of people from low-to-moderate-income families because these are the nation’s least expensive colleges, dedicated to open access and social mobility.

“We are certainly concerned,” said Charlene M. Dukes, interim president of Montgomery College. The school reported 17,284 students as of October, down from 21,260 two years earlier. It has not laid off anyone, Dukes said, but it has slowed hiring to cut expenses. It also has intensified efforts to recruit and retain students, through financial help in some situations as well as dual-enrollment programs with local high schools, among other measures.

To be sure, the college in Maryland’s most populous county, with campuses in Rockville, Takoma Park and Germantown, has weathered declines in other periods of demographic and economic flux. But this time seems different. “The way this was exacerbated by the pandemic was certainly even much more than we expected,” Dukes said.

The recent emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus poses even more volatility for schools everywhere. Montgomery College had planned to offer about 70 percent of its classes in person during the spring term, a much larger share than in the fall. Now it is weighing whether that will be possible.

Community colleges are accustomed to enrollment ebbs and flows. The rule of thumb, experts say, is that many adults, young and old, tend to surge into colleges during an economic downturn but leave when jobs are plentiful.

Enrollment didn’t follow that pattern during the economic shock at the outset of the pandemic. It fell sharply.

Community colleges at a crossroads: Enrollment is plummeting, but political clout is growing

This year’s economic rebound, with wages rising and unemployment falling, could be influencing many to stay away from college. But continuing public health troubles and other factors — including disparities in Internet access and unexpected family caregiving obligations — may also be in play.

Walter G. Bumphus, president and chief executive of the American Association of Community Colleges, said the situation is perplexing. “I’ve never seen anything quite like the last few years in community colleges,” he said. “The pandemic raised its ugly head in a number of ways for our colleges.”

There are about 950 community colleges across the country. Bumphus said their presidents are tracking student head counts closely.

“Everybody’s concerned about enrollment,” he said. “No doubt about it.” But he said educators are hoping the numbers will pick up in coming months as students seek short-term career training or courses that could help them transfer to universities.

Enrollment declines have emerged in many parts of the Washington region.

The University of the District of Columbia has 1,344 community college students in the capital city. That is down 29 percent since 2019. UDC President Ronald Mason Jr. said the school is mounting an all-out push to reverse the trend. “We’re doing everything we can,” he said, to retain students and “reconnect with the ones that didn’t make the transition to us and try to get them back on track.”

At Northern Virginia Community College, the decline is much smaller. The largest community college in the state counted 49,363 students as of December, according to an analysis by the Virginia community college system. That represented a 5 percent decline from the pre-pandemic total in 2019.

“Community college enrollment typically runs countercyclical to the economy, and the current tight labor market offers our students more opportunities for employment than they have experienced in years,” Anne M. Kress, the college’s president, said in a statement. “Some are stopping out for a short period to take advantage of the strong economy, and others are enrolling only part-time.”

Statewide, Virginia’s community college enrollment is down about 9 percent compared with fall 2019. In Maryland, enrollment fell 14 percent during that time.

“The pandemic has shown just how vulnerable our student-going population really is,” said Brad Phillips, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. He said colleges will push for state lawmakers in Annapolis to help ensure funding remains stable.

Federal pandemic relief has provided some financial support in the past couple of years. The colleges typically rely on local and state funding, in addition to tuition revenue, to operate. In some places, Phillips said, the budget “is held together by asterisks.”

At Prince George’s Community College — with 10,577 students this fall, down 10 percent over two years — officials are focused in part on finding and recruiting those who graduated from high school during the pandemic but didn’t go to college. Many were from low-income families — a “target population,” said President Falecia D. Williams.

“They opted out,” Williams said. “It is a tremendous issue.”

At Harford Community College, northeast of Baltimore, the fall head count of 4,596 was down 19 percent over two years. Theresa B. Felder, the college’s president, said those numbers don’t include an important group who take various kinds of classes that are not for college credit.

Felder wants to expand workforce development classes. “We have to have more opportunities for our working adult population,” she said. “Can we attract and retain them and meet their needs?”

Like Williams, she also wants to find recent high school graduates who bypassed higher education. “We reach out to them,” she said. “We reach out to their parents. Our message is come back — or come. Community college is the right choice. Start with us, finish with us, if that’s your choice. We have what you need.”

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