2020 Exposed Gaps in Higher Ed: For community colleges, economic realities are a big one

Community colleges are educational and economic backbones of communities across the country, where they represent nearly half of undergraduate enrollment in the U.S. With a diverse (and often vulnerable) student population, community colleges have felt the impact of COVID-19 most severely.  

Community college enrollment, which fell by almost 10% in fall 2020, is significantly lower than four-year institutions. First-time freshman enrollment decreased by 19%, with the largest decreases seen among BIPOC students. Black and Hispanic first-time freshman enrollment in community colleges decreased by an alarming 28%, and 29% for Native American students.  

This unprecedented departure of students highlights the pandemic's far-reaching impact and the existing structural inequities that community college students face. How do we build systems that are compatible with students’ economic and social realities, remove barriers to financial resources, and triage dislocated workers? The key to improving community college retention is a human-centric design that places students at the heart of decision-making and acknowledges their lived journeys through the student experience.  

This five-part series will address the largest gaps in higher ed, from the perspective of one of the most significant branches of higher education: Community Colleges.  

Gap One: Economic realities  

One of the most reliable trends in two-year enrollment shows an increase in enrollment amid periods of economic downturn. In light of the pandemic, educators —myself included—predicted community colleges would be a magnet for students who experienced an income change or wanted to stay close to home. How wrong we all were. 

This points to the need to name (and grapple with) the economic hardships two-year students face and build reliable, long-term systems that address how hard it is to be poor while seeking a higher ed degree. Everything, from getting to campus, ensuring reliable Wi-Fi, finding childcare, and sitting through remote classes, is more difficult when students aren’t sure how to make rent that month.  

And here’s the proof: New data from New America and Lake Research Partners included a sample of 1,696 adults: 501 who were enrolled in spring 2020 and continued enrollment in fall (“continuers”); 500 who were enrolled in the spring but did not enroll in the fall (“stop-outs”); 195 who considered enrollment in the spring and enrolled in the fall (“new students”); and 500 who considered enrolling in the spring but did not enroll in the fall (“aspirants”).  

For community college aspiring students, the top reason they did not enroll was uncertainty around the pandemic (47 percent) and financial considerations (44 percent could no longer afford a program, and 37 percent had to work). In short, students are skipping community college to meet their families’ basic needs, which is hard to argue with.  

When looking at students across all four groups, between 35 and 49 percent have fallen behind on a bill, applied for public benefits, or received food from a pantry, program, or friend/family during the pandemic.  

Concerningly, between 16 to 23 percent have been threatened with foreclosure or eviction.  

Economic realities threaten students at every higher ed institution. And there is a role that financial aid, enrollment, and administrative professionals can—and should—play in helping students, especially at community colleges:  

Make every educator at your college aware of how to access emergency funds.
Put it in your syllabi. Send it via text message. Push referrals via your SIS. Announce it on your LMS landing page. Make everyone an expert so students are not passed from person to person, hoping to find someone who can help them.  

Become a go-to source for resources. 
Check out resources from The Hope Center to learn best practices from colleges connecting students with SNAP, CARES funds, internal emergency funds, food pantries, and childcare options.  

Become a voice for your students, not just an echo chamber.  
Develop a basic needs advisory team that reaches into your community to leverage every asset available. The California Higher Education Basic Needs Alliance provides a template that bridges multiple agencies into a coherent voice for student success.  

Dr. Tara Zirkel, Ed.D., is the Senior Business Analyst for Community College Partnerships. 


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