The pandemic was supposed to increase community college enrollment rates, but it didn’t

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ELMIRA, NY (WETM) – Historically, during economic downfalls, college enrollment rates for community colleges rise. Yet, local community colleges are experiencing the exact opposite.

“We were hoping when COVID first hit that we would see that bump in enrollment that typically comes with economic downturns, but it never materialized, “said Bill Mulaney, President of Corning Community College (CCC).

Data has shown enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities is projected to fall by another 500,000 undergraduate students this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This comes on top of the already historic drop in enrollment that began at the start of the pandemic.

Typically when the economy is doing poorly, as it has been during the pandemic, enrollment rates at community colleges rise, according to Robert Franek, editor in chief of The Princeton Review. The lack of jobs available during an economic downturn usually sends people back to school and choosing a local, less-expensive community college.

However, the pandemic economy has been full of surprises. Early in the pandemic, a lot of businesses shut down overnight and millions of people lost jobs. But, in recent months the labor market has come roaring back and today, there are millions of job openings but not enough workers. Employers are having to pay up to hire people.

“It’s not a normal recession. we’re competing against a lot of jobs in the region,” said Mulaney.

No wonder, local community colleges and community colleges around the country are experiencing even worse drops in enrollment than public universities. Corning Community College reported a 3.5 percent decline and Elmira College even steeper at a 10-15 percent decline since the pandemic began.

In a normal economic recession, job openings aren’t surging to record highs. According to the latest data from the Department of Labor, there were 10.9 million openings at the end of July and 10.4 million at the end of August.

“People are thinking, ‘what’s the return on investment at the end of the day?’ does it make sense to go to school right now, or does it make sense to work for a couple of years,” said Matthew Burr, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Elmira College.

Additionally, the pandemic had an outsized effect on people in the lower-income segment of the population. Many of them work in restaurants and hotels, that had to close their doors when much of the country either went into lockdown or stayed home. 

Community colleges generally attract people in that segment.

“When you look at the overall numbers, the students and the families that were most significantly impacted by the pandemic, tend to be those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum,” said Eric Sykes, VP for Enrollment Management at Elmira College. “Community colleges…are having a harder time getting students they enrolled in prior years.”

Colleges may have to reevaluate how they attract students and bring more value.

“Colleges are going to have to rethink the academic model and figure out what’s going to attract and retain students…If colleges aren’t willing to evolve and change they aren’t going to be in business,” said Burr.

CCC plans on restrategizing which age group they are marketing to. College officials also believe that enrollment is cyclical, with the expectation of the younger generation coming back when they are older.

“If history holds we’ll see an upturn in enrollment…Part of our strategic enrollment management is to market and program more aggressively for the nontraditional students, you know, 25 and above…More evening and weekend classes… I think that’s really the future of community college,” said Mulaney.

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