PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The metro area’s three community colleges are feeling a little queasy due to double-digit enrollment declines brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Portland Community College saw a 15.8% dive in enrollment for the fall term compared to a year earlier, Clackamas Community College a 20% slump and Mt. Hood Community College a 17% drop.
Normally, during a recession, enrollment in community colleges goes up as students take time out during a tepid economy to get more education, obtain a degree or burnish their skills.
Plus, this fall some community colleges were hoping for a bump in enrollment from students who didn’t want to pay the higher tuition for an online education at a more expensive four-year university.
But this COVID-19 recession is a different animal than recessions past with higher unemployment spikes and more uncertainty. Grinding through this downturn coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic may change the way community colleges operate in the future.
“This is not a normal recession,” observed Tara Sprehe, Clackamas Community College’s dean of academic foundations and connections.
Past recessions and the enrollment patterns “may not be a great predictor because the economic conditions were different then than now, and not the result of an abrupt shutdown of the economy,” said Kate Chester, director of public relations and community engagement at Portland Community College.
But why didn’t more students show up at community colleges as they usually do in a recession?
“People lost jobs and income,” said Diane Noreiga, chairperson of the school board at Mt. Hood Community College.
“They are looking at their budgets and they have got to pay for rent and food. College tuition is far down on the list,” Noreiga said.
CCC’s Sprehe said conversations with students who applied, but didn’t enroll show multiple other reasons for the decline in enrollment.
“Some have kids at home and they just don’t have the capacity,” Sprehe said. Parents with school-aged children are tied up helping their students with distance learning and day care has become difficult to find.
Some potential community college students also have increased work hours, she said. Some students with part-time jobs in health care or grocery stores, for example, had their work hours increased and that prevented them from enrolling in fall term.
“Also there is just what all of us are feeling, anxiety, being overwhelmed, concerned about our community,” Sprehe said.
The September wildfires also clouded the picture for some students, confusing the outlook for the colleges even more.
Local community college are seeing a more severe decline in enrollment than their counterparts across the country. Nationwide, two-year institutions saw a 7.5% drop in fall enrollment. That compared with a 0.4% dip for four-year public universities and 3.8% for private, nonprofit four-year colleges, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Jason Kovac, CCC’s dean of institutional effectiveness and planning said “we’re now working through a recession and a global health crisis.”
For now, the vast majority of the community college classes are online. Some “hands-on” classes such as welding, automotive technology or dental hygiene are being offered with pandemic precautions in place. PCC has no in person classes.
Noriega said MHCC has rearranged things on campus for the few that are on campus and these changes could stay in place when the campus begins to return to more normal operations. There is hand sanitizer dispensers all over campus and classrooms might have fewer, socially-distanced seats for students.
Short-term, the community colleges are feeling a pinch in their budgets due to the decline in tuition payments.
But longer-term, the institutions may change up the way they educate students as a result of the pandemic and online class experience.
“After COVID-19 when we ‘open open,’ does it look like regular times? We don’t know,” said Sprehe.
Kovac said going forward community colleges will likely be “expanding online learning because its the future.”
Clackamas Community College, he said, could offer some hybrid classes where some parts are online and some in person. Some sessions could meet virtually and some lectures could be recorded for students to view at a time more convenient for them. Student parents tending to children might watch a live online lecture, with the ability to ask questions, while watching over a child at home.
Many community college students work to support themselves and their families, so online offerings, lecturers that are on-demand and other changes might be more convenient for many students.
Community colleges play an important role in training people in technical professions such as welders, auto technicians and dental hygienists. With the experience of this pandemic, might those types of hands-on offerings be cut permanently?
No, said CCC’s Kovac. “The college will do what it needs to do to respond to community needs. The need for those kinds of classes is not going away.”
The pandemic experience could also change the way community colleges consider financial aid. Some low-income students do their class work in the school library or other college spaces because they don’t have computers or reliable internet service at home. Financial aid might include money for internet service, for example.
Clackamas CC purchased 200 tablets and some laptops for students and is working with the state to get hot spot internet connections for some students. College foundations are also pitching in with this need.
Portland Community College’s Foundation provided more than $135,000 for student devices in the spring term, enabling the college to distribute more than 600 Chromebooks and Winbooks to students in need, Chester said.
Despite the challengers, college executives are adapting and upbeat that their institutions will continue to adjust to changing circumstances.
Said Noreiga “Things are going well. It’s just different.”