In March of 2020, institutions of higher education across the United States raced to make online classes readily available for students in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Within a short time frame, colleges and universities experienced a dramatic shift from in-person class offerings to online or remote learning courses in order to comply with government-imposed safety regulations. Perhaps some of the most impacted segments were postsecondary institutions in the public sector, and more specifically, community colleges. According to the most recent available data from the U.S. Department of Education prior to the pandemic, only 13% of Pennsylvania community college students were studying exclusively online in the fall of 2018, and 35% were studying partially through distance learning or online education, nearly all of whom transitioned to fully remote learning as a result of coronavirus.
A study conducted by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) revealed that over half of community colleges that participated expect to experience a decrease in revenue of 10% or more as a result of the pandemic, particularly in the areas of tuition and fees, auxiliary enterprises and noncredit activities stemming from changes in state and local appropriations. Many included in the study also mentioned the cost of technology as a key factor in determining other significant budgetary impacts. Furthermore, as a primary driver of revenue for community colleges, student enrollment will continue to play a critical role in the financial stability of institutions in the foreseeable future.
Experts in higher education are paying particular attention to the somewhat surprising downturn in community college enrollment, since this sector has historically thrived during times of economic recession. Data recently released from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center showed a significant decline in summer enrollment for community colleges, which decreased by more than 5% this year. However, community colleges typically offer a significant number of career and technical education courses, which can be difficult to facilitate in a remote environment, as the programs tend to necessitate hands-on learning. Community colleges also frequently serve students who are now facing job losses, decreases in income and the inability to afford course fees, and who are straining to divide their time between work and childcare. Attendance for adult learners this fall has also seen a decline, whether due to concerns over health and safety, financial instability or uncertainty about future academic plans.
Despite the current challenges, there are several unique characteristics of community colleges that could also factor into student enrollment. For instance, demand in the industry of higher education tends to be substantially influenced by price, which makes inexpensive community colleges an attractive option for prospective students seeking to attend at a lower cost. Additionally, community colleges often have rolling admissions, meaning that applications are evaluated as they are submitted, and usually there is no official deadline to apply. Many community colleges are also designed in such a way that allows for a greater ability to adapt to fluctuations in the regional job market, and work with local businesses to create programs that suit the needs of the community, just in time for a growing demand of essential workers.
In the short-term, colleges and universities are implementing additional programs in an attempt to better retain and support students, and to respond to their specific needs. Some institutions have enacted policies that provide institutional grant aid to students who have been forced to go part-time, and have offered extra assistance in the form of mental health services to students most impacted by the pandemic. As events continue to unfold, a heightened ability to adapt and adopt new policies will become increasingly important to the retention and financial stability of institutions in the near future.
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