COVID-19 has posed big problems for public universities as students have struggled to continue their studies in recent years. But in many ways, community colleges have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s effects on higher education.
In Oregon, community college enrollment fell nearly 24% last fall from pre-pandemic levels, according to the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Some colleges have seen layoffs due to continued declining enrollment.
But, there are some bright spots. Oregon is investing $200 million in workforce development through Future Ready Oregon, which includes nearly $15 million to boost career-path training programs at all community colleges in the state. Colleges also continue to enjoy local support, with some securing large bonds issued this spring.
The PCC this year celebrated 10 years of a scholarship program for low-income and first-generation students, and it recently established a writers’ residency program.
Early in Kemper-Pelle’s career as Rogue president, in 2016 voters in Jackson and Josephine counties passed a $20 million bond for the college to fund building programs and upgrade its facilities.
Lane Community College in Eugene also saw its community support a bond of more than $121 million in 2020.
But alongside the successes, the presidents have faced significant challenges – many of which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Drop in enrollment and challenges ahead
“When you’re a big college, you take the biggest hit first,” Margaret Hamilton, outgoing president of Lane Community College, told the OPB. “Big community colleges, we’re such a cross section of humanity, so we tend to take the hit.”
Hamilton pointed out that while the state’s public universities also saw enrollment declines, they only saw an average of about 4% fewer students last fall compared to the pre-pandemic period.
“We were all in double digits,” Hamilton said of declining community college enrollment. “We were sweating every time these numbers came in, because we are so focused on registrations. We just lost so many students.
Lane saw enrollment drop about 30% last fall from 2019, CCP saw it drop 23%, and Rogue’s enrollment fell 35%, according to state data.
Their new presidents are now being challenged to bring those numbers back up.
Cathy Kemper-Pelle of Rogue Community College in Grants Pass said that in recent years her college has made the decision to shift to “data-driven decision-making” – working on more data collection and research to to better understand the needs of students and their barriers to success.
“While the pandemic has driven down enrollment at RCC and community colleges across the country, we demonstrated early in the pandemic that we are able to pivot quickly and respond to changing demands from employers and students. We continue to adapt during pandemic recovery, using data to inform our decisions about both employment needs and barriers to student success,” Kemper-Pelle said.
At Oregon’s largest institution of higher education, Portland Community College, Mark Mitsui said understanding why students are leaving community colleges means looking at other opportunities available during the ongoing pandemic. Mitsui retired as president at the end of June.
According to Mitsui, the pandemic has changed the way some prospective students think about college. Instead of going to community college and getting a better-paying job, many people were pressured to get jobs right out of high school in order to make ends meet.
“Inflation continues, wages are also rising in low-barrier-to-entry jobs,” Mitsui said. “Housing, child care, food – basic needs – insecurity remains high and inequitable.”
To make community college more attractive, Mitsui said, colleges must continue to help students meet their basic needs through the implementation and expansion of supports like those in the recently passed Bill 2835. This Oregon law funds staff at all public universities in the state. and community colleges that can help students access resources such as food assistance and housing assistance.
Related: Oregon bill funds ‘benefits navigators’ at public universities and colleges
Hamilton and Lane also recognized that the very specific needs and living conditions of community college students during the pandemic often differed from those of university students.
“Our students didn’t have the luxury of going to a dorm with the nice working laptop and the good working wi-fi,” she said. “Our students were at home. Some of their parents fell ill, lost their jobs. They themselves fell ill, lost their jobs. Anyone in this household loses their job, they have no money for school fees.
Hamilton said LCC saw students drop out at the height of the pandemic for a variety of reasons – including unfamiliarity and the difficulty of remote learning.
“We’re going to have to woo them,” she said.
Hamilton said that while many students still want a primarily in-person experience, she expects online and blended learning to continue to be a big part of the university after the pandemic. She said the schools that adapt best will be the ones that students flock to.
“Schools that embrace technology, do it well, and make it appealing to students, … they’re going to be the survivors of it all. And that’s what we’re going to see in the next few years – who’s going to be able to do that,” she said. “Mediocre isn’t going to do it anymore, you’re going to have to be the best at everything you do.”
Community colleges will help with pandemic recovery, but they need help too
While it may take some persuasion to recover community college enrollment numbers, RCC’s Kemper-Pelle said their recovery is a crucial part of Oregon’s post-pandemic recovery, both for their regions and for the state as a whole.
“Because we have the ability to provide both vocational and transfer programs, we are better positioned than any other higher education institution to meet workforce needs,” Kemper-Pelle said. .
She said Rogue has focused on its partnerships with K-12 schools to allow students to earn RCC credits while still in high school, as well as transfer agreements with universities to allow students to make the smooth transition from college to a four-year program. university, if they wish.
“The RCC is an integral part of the pandemic recovery in southern Oregon, and we will continue to partner with universities and employers to ensure our students are ready for the next step in their career paths,” said Kemper-Pelle.
Hamilton with LCC is a registered nurse and has a health care background in addition to higher education. She said she is already hearing the demand for more healthcare workers in her community, like certified practical nurses and paramedics.
“These people all need to be trained, and that’s definitely a big part of our role,” Hamilton said. “Everyone in Oregon and across the country understands how necessary these community colleges are to get us out of the pandemic.”
But, she said, the small class sizes and the technology needed to teach specific training courses make them much more expensive than, say, large university conferences.
Hamilton said she, like other Oregon college and university presidents, has been a strong advocate for more funding, as well as a change in the state funding model. Currently, the funding that community colleges receive from the state is largely dictated by enrollment numbers. This can mean even more financial loss when fewer students enroll, as in recent years. Hamilton argues that these are the wrong priorities.
“It’s what you teach and who you teach that should really affect your funding,” Hamilton said, meaning schools offering specialized career tech programs and educating low-income or underserved students should help. to determine the costs. This means that the funding could cover support programs and complementary services for students.
Mitsui, as outgoing president of the state’s largest institution of higher learning, also saw a great need to increase state funding for community colleges. He said it is in Oregon’s interest to ensure a skilled workforce in the years to come.
“Community colleges will continue to advance economic mobility by addressing both skills gaps and equity gaps in paid careers, through strategic partnerships with [community-based organizations], K-12 districts, employers, the philanthropic community, and state agencies…” Mitsui said. “However, additional state funding is needed to truly close the equity and skills gaps, statewide.”