Community colleges and COVID-19: A disturbing educational opportunity gap is emerging 


December 18, 2020

Editor’s note: CHN Intern Grace Mulamba contributed to this post. 

Last August, Paige McConnell became the first in her family to enroll in college, signing up for classes at Tennessee’s Roane State Community College. Two weeks later, she dropped out. 

McConnell, 18, who shared her story with the Washington Post, could not make online classes work for her. She does not have WiFi at her rural home in Crossville, Tenn. She tried to go to the library, but their services were curtailed due to the pandemic. She even spent hours in a McDonald’s parking lot, using the restaurant’s Internet, but she kept getting kicked off the network 

“At my high school graduation, I told all my family I would go to community college,” McConnell said. “I was trying to better my future. But the online classes really threw me for a loop. I knew I couldn’t do it.” 

McConnell is hardly alone. Enrollment in every sector of undergraduate higher education is down this fall – but the decline is being felt most sharply among community colleges. Figures released this fall by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) show enrollment is down nearly 10 percent this fall compared to last fall at the nation’s community colleges. That’s almost five times the rate of decline among traditional, four-year public and private universities, which is around two percent. 

Moreover, the most precipitous declines involve people of color – who make up a majority of community college enrollment in the U.S. — and among males. 

According NSCRC statistics, Black male enrollment in community colleges this fall dropped 19.2 percent compared with last fall. For Latinx males, the decline was 16.6 percent; for white males, 14 percent. And while exact figures aren’t available, the decline is thought to be larger in rural areas, with spotty Internet connections, than in urban areas. 

Experts can’t point to a single reason why the decline among Black and Latinx students is so precipitous. But they all seem to agree it is a byproduct of the fact that the coronavirus pandemic has hit people of color disproportionately – more people of color have gotten sick, been hospitalized, and died. And perhaps more to the point for young people, many jobs in the hospitality industry, often filled by college-aged workers, have dried up. Back in August, the unemployment rate for all adult Americans was 8.4 percent; but for people aged 20-24, it was over 14 percent. 

The decline in college enrollment has taken higher education officials by surprise. Enrollment tends to be countercyclical, they say – during times of economic downturn, enrollment tends to increase, as it did during the Great Recession, as students opt to return to school to learn new skills. Some even expected community college enrollment to increase, thinking that students would want to attend school close to home. It did not happen. 

According to U.S. Census Bureau survey data, would-be students cited a number of reasons for not returning to school this fall, or, for recent high school graduates, not enrolling in the first place. The most common: frustration or uncertainty about online classes or changing class formats and content; fear of contracting COVID-19; and inability to pay for classes after the student or parent lost a job or took a financial hit. 

Colleges are grappling with the implementation of new safety procedures while still being able to meet the needs of low-income students.

And students from lower-income families were affected most. The Census Bureau data showed that students from families with incomes under $75,000 were nearly twice as likely to say they “cancelled all plans” to take classes this fall as students from families with incomes over $100,000. 

That disparity – yet another economic disparity occurring during the pandemic – has experts worried about the lower-income students future. “Community colleges are some kids’ first real opportunity, for individuals who are economically challenged, but it’s the first real opportunity for them to pursue higher education,” Lawrence T. Potter, Chief Academic Officer at the University of D.C., told the Post.

To try to help students from low-income families stay in college, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and some of her colleagues have introduced the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act (CCCERA), a proposed COVID-19 emergency education funding bill to provide $450 million in emergency support for federal TRIO programs to serve low-income/first-generation students, unemployed adults, and students with disabilities.

The bill would provide $250 million for TRIO capacity increases to help serve additional students facing educational disruption, unemployment, and poverty in the COVID-19 crisis. The bill would also provide $200 million for technological connectivity through the TRIO programs to help low-income students continue coursework, apply to college and financial aid, and continue advising services online.

“Students and families are facing significant disruption as COVID-19 closes schools, and unemployment and poverty skyrocket,” said Maureen Hoyler, President of the Council for Opportunity in Education, in a statement. “Without action, we could see a lost generation of college-bound students. Thank you, Senator Murray and colleagues, for hearing the TRIO community’s strong cry for help, and proposing this emergency relief to help vulnerable students enter and complete college to improve their economic situation.”

Experts worry about the ramifications of a generation of students missing out on community college. Unlike students from upper-income families, who are more likely to take a “gap year” to travel or work at an internship, when low-income students stop attending school, they rarely return, diminishing their job prospects and earning potential for the rest of their lives. A National Student Clearinghouse report from last year found that only 13 percent of college dropouts ever return, and even fewer graduate. 

“The notion of a gap year does not exist for these students,” said Kim Cook, Executive Director of the National College Attainment Network. “They’ll help their families or get a job. Then it will not seem possible to make time for college.” 

higher education