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Community College Enrollment Is Way Down. How Can They Rebound As COVID Rages On?

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Peter Medlin
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Many colleges and universities saw student numbers plummet due to the pandemic. But community college enrollment is down more than any other higher-ed sector.

Community college enrollment fell nearly 10% nationwide in the fall. Waubonsee Community College saw the same drop-off. That’s because the pandemic recession is unlike any they’ve seen before, where enrollment typically jumps.

They also serve more students of color and first-generation student than most institutions. Waubonsee President Christine Sobek says those students have been hit the hardest during COVID-19 and may work essential jobs that put them in contact with the virus. 

“We're just finding many of our adult students just simply don't have the time or the capacity to be returning to school or continuing on. It's a big sacrifice to go to school on top of everything else,” she said. “And so, I think that's also contributing to some of the enrollment declines. Because, again, adult students are typically what community colleges are best at and that's a big part of the demographic that we serve.”

Sobek says they need to be even more flexible to meet their student’s needs. They’ve had to provide computers and other tech to bridge the digital divide for many students. They’ve also honed in on career and technical programs that meet the moment, like contact tracing, cybersecurity and health care.

To that end, they created a workforce and solutions council to meet with local business and see what the community’s needs are as the world closes in on a year of the pandemic.

“I keep saying, we're now in a hybrid world. And I think we'll continue to be in a hybrid world, even with our workforce, our support staff, our services,” she said.

Speaking of their services, COVID-19 has forced new strategies that they think will work post-pandemic. Sunday night is a hugely popular time for tutoring, and now they can offer sessions virtually when adult students, often with kids, need them most.

It’s meant bridging the digital divide and providing tech to students. She also points to their MyChoice class options that offer up to five ways to take a class whether in-person, remote or a hybrid. 

The one area they didn’t see a decrease was with high school students taking dual credit courses that count towards their college degree.