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Community College Enrollment Plummeted During COVID. How One School Made Gains Instead

McHenry County College

Illinois community colleges lost a lot of students during the pandemic -- enrollment fell 14%. Only a few schools increased their total number of credit-earning students.

McHenry County College saw the most dramatic gains: 4.5% in fall 2020 and then another increase in the spring of 2021. President Clint Gabbard said they’ve been asking themselves about that dramatic difference.

For one, as colleges furloughed campus staff at the outset of the pandemic, McHenry County College had a different idea. They trained some staff, like cafeteria workers and exercise instructors, to be “navigators” for students in online classes -- answering financial aid questions and helping with tech issues.

That’s one of the reasons Gabbard thinks they avoided an enrollment collapse.

“The second thing that I think was a difference-maker," he said, "is that money started coming in from various resources like the federal CARES Act."

Gabbard said they streamlined applications for aid, so they were able get money to students impacted by COVID faster than other schools.

“It's the difference," he said, "between funds trickling out and funds pouring out at the right time to meet the need."

They utilized student emergency funds more, raised over $1 million in new scholarships, had a donor who gave $250,000 to help undocumented students left out of CARES Act funds.

They stopped dropping students from courses if they couldn’t pay by a deadline near the first day of class. The college ramped up their dual-credit high school program as well – an area where even some schools that struggled with enrollment saw gains in 2020.

McHenry County College also has 20% of students learning in-person, which Gabbard said is more than many community colleges. For remote learning, they’ve emphasized synchronous classes: everyone meets at the same set times, just as regular in-person classes do. Gabbard said their “navigators” program made a difference for students that may have gotten frustrated and stopped taking online classes during COVID.

The Crystal Lake-based college wasn’t just an outlier this year either. Their enrollment numbers have been running in the opposite direction of state trends for several years.

From 2016-2020, every single community college in Illinois saw a decrease in credit headcount enrollment, except for MCC and Malcolm X College in Chicago.

Gabbard said even before the pandemic they were trying to make financial aid and scholarship processes more accessible. According to the president, McHenry County College also focused more on equity, using federal funds to target first-gen college students, and hiring more LatinX advisors and staff.