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Could COVID-19 Prompt Higher Community College Enrollment?

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Although the college admissions cycle is seeing an unprecedented amount of change due to the coronavirus pandemic, not all institutions may end up seeing negative consequences. In fact, some reports suggest that community colleges may experience higher enrollments than usual.


According to CNBC reporter Jessica Dickler, community colleges could see a surge in popularity due to the pandemic's fallout. That prediction ties in nicely with a new survey just released by Junior Achievement and Citizens Bank. The common thread tying these two sources of information together is money — concerns about the financial impact of COVID-19.

Looking at money issues first, the JA/CB survey notes that two-thirds of America's teens are concerned about the financial impact of COVID-19 with research showing that financial well being is as big a concern as health. Here, from the JA/CB press release, is some background on their survey:

The financial impact and pressure brought by COVID-19 is weighing heavily on American teenagers, with more than two-thirds of teens (69%) saying they are either somewhat or very concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their families and day-to-day lives ...

... The survey of 1,000 U.S. teens, aged between 13 and 18 and not currently attending college, found that nearly three quarters of teens (72%) say they have had a discussion with their parents or guardian about finances as a result of COVID-19. Nearly a quarter (24%) of teenagers say their parents or caregivers have shared with them their concerns about paying bills while nearly one-in-seven (13%) say their parent or caregiver has lost their job due to COVID-19.

Other Key Findings Include:

- More than half of the teens surveyed (57%) are concerned about how COVID-19 will impact their plans for the future. The only concerns that worry them more include a family member other than a parent or guardian getting sick (60%) or a parent or guardian getting sick (59%).

- 44% of high school juniors and seniors say COVID-19 has impacted their plans to pay for college, with a majority of those affected (58%) saying they are now more likely to take out student loans to help pay for college. Meanwhile 30% of those whose plans have changed for after high school graduation as a result of COVID-19 said they have had to delay their college start date and 13% said they have changed what school they plan to attend because of COVID-19.

- More than two in ten teens (22%) have a job outside the home, with 46% saying that they or their families depend on their income for living expenses. Most teens who work (62%) say they would need to frequently violate social distancing recommendations to continue working.

Consider These Takeaways

I see several key points within those results. First, job losses as a result of the national shutdown have caused a significant change in the financial security of many families. Thirteen percent of teens surveyed say that a principal earner in their family has lost his or her job due to the pandemic. A silver lining here would emerge if the teen can gain admission to a college that offers to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need. However, some students may find that a family's job loss could precipitate a major change in college plans (more on that below).

Second, 44 percent say that the crisis has altered their plan to pay for college, with 58 percent thinking about borrowing more money to cover the cost of college. This is doubly troubling since increased debt will likely mean more years of payments, which can negatively impact lifestyle goals.

Third, the 62 percent who say they would have to violate social distancing to continue doing their jobs are in for a long haul this year, if we can believe coronavirus task force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, who said this week that "social distancing will be with us through the summer …" With governors becoming more stringent about enforcing stay-at-home and distancing directives, some student jobs could be jeopardized, as was this Maryland restaurant delivering takeout food.

Community Colleges May See Enrollment Rise

Shifting to positive consequences, consider community colleges.

For students who are unsure about their college plans because of financial realities, community colleges offer a key set of circumstances that can benefit collegians in several ways. Obviously, the money-saving aspect is primary. Community college students mainly live at home, which dramatically lowers housing costs. Tuition is significantly lower and, after two years, students can transfer to another private college or public university to finish their four-year degrees, or they can graduate with a two-year associate's degree and enter the workforce. Jessica Dickler notes:

... Amid a global pandemic and sharp economic slowdown, students and families may be more likely to choose local and less-expensive public schools or community college rather than private universities far from home, according to Robert Franek, editor in chief of The Princeton Review and author of "The Best 385 Colleges."

As price becomes a growing consideration, 40% of students already have said they would attend public college and 26% have said they would choose community college, according to a separate report by the College Savings Foundation, a Washington-based research group.

For starters, community college is significantly less expensive. At two-year public schools, tuition and fees are $3,730 for the 2019–2020 school year, according to the College Board. Alternatively, at in-state four-year public schools, tuition is $10,440 and at four-year private universities it averages $36,880.

"From a college savings standpoint, I think it's the best investment you can make," Julio Martinez, executive director of California's ScholarShare Investment Board, said of community college ...

Check These Surprising Statistics

... Today, about half of all bachelor's degree earners began their education at a community college, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Yet community colleges have struggled with sluggish completion rates and the stigma of being merely a fallback option for students with few other choices.

Although completion rates are on the rise, still, only about 40% of students who start at a two-year school finish the program in six years, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found.

In comparison, 67% of students who matriculated at a four-year public university completed their degree within six years. The rate jumped to nearly 77% for those who started at four-year private schools.

The fallout from COVID-19 could change that ...

My opinion about the disparity between completion rates of community college programs and those of four-year public and private schools is that with the latter, the investment by students has become so heavy that the specter of dropping out becomes psychologically and practically wasteful. There are so many dynamics at work currently in higher education that we may be on the edge of a dramatic shift in how high school graduates acquire credentials for their life's work.

In the late summer of 2018, I wrote an article about changes I was predicting for higher education. In my conclusion, I wrote:

... Scanning the higher educational horizon, I see even more changes on the way. Off the top of my head, I see a continuing exit (or at least shrinkage) of small, relatively obscure liberal arts colleges due to declining enrollment. Watch for more colleges lowering their tuition in efforts to appear more affordable. Plus, eventually, there likely will be a massive uprising against the ever-escalating price of a college degree.

There are sure to be more changes ahead, but those are just what I see percolating inside my crystal ball right now. The sea change is already underway. Perhaps the prudent message for higher educators everywhere should be, "Man the lifeboats!"

Man the lifeboats, indeed. A year-and-a-half ago, we had no clue about coronavirus, COVID-19, Sars-CoV-2, or whatever this world-shaking element is called. The landscape has changed forever into an ongoing, abnormal "new normal." There will be future consequences, too. If you're navigating the realm of higher education, be on the lookout for positive consequences. Not all change is bad. Look for opportunity!

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