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Facing Enrollment Dips, Some Community Colleges Go Virtual

Community colleges typically face predictable situations: Unemployment goes up, more people seek job training and affordable tuition, enrollment rises. The economy improves, unemployment goes down, and enrollment drops.

by Matt Jones, Daily Press / August 20, 2020
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(TNS) — Community colleges typically face a predictable calculus: Unemployment goes up, more people seek job training and affordable tuition, so enrollment rises. The economy improves, unemployment goes down, and enrollment drops.

But the coronavirus pandemic has broken all the rules. Despite high unemployment, Thomas Nelson and Tidewater community colleges in Virginia are facing significant enrollment declines.

As of last week, enrollment was down 29% from last year at the Peninsula’s community college. Curtis Aasen, vice president for information systems and institutional effectiveness at TCC, projected that enrollment will be down about 15% when fall classes start Monday.

Administrators across the region hope that new initiatives and programs, with a focus on digital learning, will leave institutions stronger.

“There’s a lot of shift in the traditional college student and their consideration of a four-year school, especially in the Virginia commonwealth,” said Susan English, vice president of academic affairs and workforce development at TNCC. “I think that the community colleges are really going to reap the benefits of that.”

Enrollment in a pandemic

Tracking community college enrollment can be tricky, especially during the pandemic when TCC and TNCC pushed back tuition deadlines.

Students are enrolling later and later, administrators say, and it seems particularly true this year, according to English. The enrollment gap between this year and last will likely close.

“We really believe that everyone is kind of just waiting to see what’s going to happen,” English said. “Once we marketed and communicated our schedule, that’s when students really started signing up.”

The student body looks different at community colleges than at four-year schools. They’re more likely to be the first in their family to go to college, to work full-time or to have children

Elizabeth Yimer, TNCC’s student government association president, said that for some of her friends and classmates, virtual learning just didn’t work last spring.

“A lot of students saw last semester and they were really, really worried about learning online. It’s not the preferred method of learning,” said Yimer, who is completing an associate’s degree in science. “Most students think of learning in an environment where there’s other students to learn from.”

Yimer’s three siblings mean that her home can get loud. A pair of noise-cancelling headphones can help, but not all students have access to a quiet, private place to learn.

“School was my space, and I’ve had to work around that,” Yimer said.

Aasen said that so far, enrollment drops at TCC have been pretty steady across demographic categories. Students older than 35 have dipped slightly more than other age groups.

At TNCC, English said they’ve enrolled some students whose four-year college choices didn’t open their campuses. Taking general education courses virtually at TNCC is cheaper than taking them virtually from most four-year colleges.

Enrolling more high school students in dual enrollment programs and getting them to continue at the community college after graduation was already a strategic priority, but now it’s taken on even more importance.

“Parents are really looking for other opportunities for their students,” said Michelle Woodhouse, TCC’s vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer. “We are really working aggressively to make sure that we meet those needs for students as well as the needs of the home school population.”

At TCC, annual enrollment has dropped 32% from 18,674 full-time equivalent students in 2014-15 to 12,569 in 2019-20. At TNCC, that number dropped 31% from 6,513 to 4,962.

TNCC laid off staff at the end of last year and made cuts to address a multi-million budget shortfall. Community college revenue mostly comes from enrollment and state funds that are tied to full-time equivalent enrollment.

“The good news for Thomas Nelson is we really did that hard work to be balanced. If we continue and get closer to where we thought we were going to be, I think it’s not going to hit Thomas Nelson financially as hard as it could have,” English said.

TCC has ramped up a new student affairs division that is reaching out and retaining current students. It’s starting other new initiatives too, like a shortened, late-start fall term that they hope will capture more students.

“In the end, with some of the new initiatives that we are implementing, we are hoping to see a better yield than what we have seen in a long time here at TCC,” Woodhouse said.

Taking classes online

Last Thursday, about 90 people joined the last day of a Zoom class held by the Virginia Community College System.

But they weren’t regular students. They were instructors from smaller community colleges across the state, learning how to use the new Canvas learning management system to teach online.

“To learn from home can be a very isolating experience,” said Sheri Prupis, VCCS director of teaching and learning technologies. “We want the students to feel that they’re learning with other students.”

Community colleges across the state are offering a mix of class arrangements. Some programs, like welding and nursing, require hands-on activities. But every class will have some kind of online component.

Part of the training that community college instructors have been receiving, whether from the system office or from their institution’s internal training, is how to do that in a way that helps community college students from a wide range of backgrounds.

“We have to socialize them to college, not just to pandemic life,” Prupis said. “That’s one of the things that we’re working with faculty on, that we want them at the very beginning to talk to students what it’s like to learn, what it’s like to be a student.”

Online learning isn’t new for community colleges. Aasen said before the pandemic, nearly 30% of the college’s enrollment came from online classes.

Access to virtual learning is another challenge. A report from the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia found that 12% of the state’s college students don’t have broadband or a computer. Black and Latino students are twice as likely as white students not to have a computer at home.

At TCC, Aasen said the college’s computer club is continuing its refurbished computer program, giving students in need desktop computers that have been donated. The college has created some lower-cost options for laptops through its bookstore partnership with Barnes & Noble.

TNCC is checking out Chromebooks and Wifi hotspots through the college library, a program it started in spring but has about doubled going into the fall. The college is also finalizing plans to try and create student spaces virtually, from a holiday movie to a virtual studio for tutoring and career development.

“No matter what age, who you are, you can always learn something,” Yimer said. “Having access to the virtual studio and opening people’s eyes about learning virtually, I think that’s going to be a game changer.”

©2020 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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