As Oregon’s community colleges continue to grapple with the effects of pandemic-induced declining enrollment, the upcoming fall term still looks uncertain. But, recognizing the reasons for declining enrollment, some university leaders see strategies that could bring students back.
Central Oregon Community College in Bend suffered about a 15% drop in enrollment last fall compared to before the pandemic.
Laurie Chesley, President of the COCC, said there were two big reasons for this.
“The first is that employment is high, which is a key economic driver, and wages for entry-level unskilled jobs are also quite high,” Chesley told OPB’s Think Out Loud Wednesday, suggesting that many potential students are working, rather than enrolling in classes.
“The other factor was also COVID.”
Chesley said community colleges across the state serve diverse communities and many students are among the most vulnerable populations at risk for COVID-19.
“They are already struggling with many different factors – jobs, children, etc. — and then if you add COVID to that mix, it becomes kind of a straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Chesley said. “Furthering your education becomes less of a priority after surviving the pandemic.”
Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham also saw fewer students post-pandemic. The college saw about an 18% decrease in student enrollment last fall compared to before the pandemic.
MHCC President Lisa Skari said the college has also lost students juggling their lives outside of class. Some had family obligations such as finding daycare for children whose school or preschool schedules were disrupted.
“But also, paying for college is an expensive business, and so those who were more financially fragile found it harder to take classes and keep going in the pandemic, especially with job loss,” said Skari at Think Out Loud.
It’s still a bit too early to see what the next fall term will look like, starting in September, college leaders said.
Chesley said she expects COCC enrollment to remain relatively flat for the fall, as it has for the past two quarters.
“It may be a sign that trends are changing,” Chesley said. “We’ll kind of have to wait and see.”
Still, Skari with Mt. Hood said while students may have chosen to take a break and focus on entering the workforce and stabilizing their financial situation, community colleges are still essential. to enhance career growth.
Although this has not happened during the pandemic, community college enrollment has historically increased during recessions.
“There is always this opportunity for career growth and future career plans. This is where community colleges have always been strong, providing the skills employees need for their first job, second job, and throughout their working lives. Skari said. “We always see students coming back for that reskilling and retooling, for that career advancement and career path.”
Community colleges will have the opportunity to bolster these career path offerings with state investments. Earlier this year, the Oregon Legislature passed the $200 million Future Ready Oregon program focused on workforce development. About $15 million of that will go to college career programs.
“It allows each institution to determine how they will grow and develop their community’s workforce, because that’s ultimately what community colleges exist for — to support our region,” Skari said.
Chesley said the way the pandemic has forced community colleges to adapt could also bring students back. While online learning began out of necessity when college campuses closed at the start of the pandemic, some students hope it will last.
“What we’re seeing now a few years into COVID is that we have more students interested in online learning and various forms of blended learning,” Chesley said. “And we think that’s a very important strategy for us to improve our enrollment and really improve access for anyone in our district who wants to come to college.”
While many community colleges have been content to offer students more online and hybrid courses, public universities, on the other hand, have pushed to be more fully back in person, citing a desire for a more traditional on campus.
Chesley said that in the 2016-17 academic year, about 7,000 students were taking in-person classes while only 200 students were enrolled in online classes. In this current academic year, course modalities were split down the middle – approximately 3,000 students were face-to-face and approximately 3,000 were online.
Both Chesley and Skari said it would likely be a lasting change.
“We try to strike that perfect balance between serving our students and being there for those who want to be in person,” Skari said. “But, we know that many of our students need the flexibility that comes with online classes and allows them to work or care for family members. So I see that as how we operate going forward, and finding that perfect balance is, I think, the challenge ahead of us.
As for what would be most helpful to community colleges moving forward, the two presidents point to two things: clarity of economic forecasts for better planning, and stronger ties to state industries.
“That connection with employers and improving our offerings of what they need,” Skari said. “…and meet the needs of our communities to serve students.”