Community colleges scramble to recover students lost in pandemic
Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, where 61 percent of residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, public service videos upload, urging students to get vaccinated before returning to campus.
“Let’s get back together. Let’s get back to doing the things we love to do in person, ”say several students in multiple languages, including English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Russian.
Quinsigamond also set up a drive-through pantry and used $ 2.5 million in federal aid to forgive the balances of nearly 1,687 students who owed college an average of $ 1,525. President Luis Pedraja said the school wanted to give them “a clean slate”.
“We want them to be able to not have this worry and be able to focus on their education,” he said. “I hope some of them will come back.”
Quinsigamond, like the other 14 community colleges in Massachusetts, is scrambling to pick up students who have disappeared due to the pandemic and the economic downturn.
These two-year colleges tend to accommodate more low-income, immigrant, and minority students than four-year schools. Usually when the economy collapses, community college enrollments go up, but not this time around.
Enrollment at the Worcester school, down 4% in the fall, fell 9% in the spring. The loss was 11% at state community colleges in the fall and nearly 10% nationally in the spring, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and the National Student Clearinghouse, respectively.
“Our students, who are just in survival mode, try to keep a roof over their heads, put food on their tables,” Pedraja explained. “Thinking about going to college was just too much.”
A new report from the Strada Education Network, a nonprofit research organization focused on consumers, finds that stress and anxiety, followed by financial pressures, had the most influence on the decisions of disturbed students to delay their studies. Community college enrollment rates have fallen the most among first-generation, black, Hispanic and Native American students, according to a College Board survey.
“Community colleges are going to have to pull themselves together,” said Davis Jenkins, who studies community colleges at Teachers College at Columbia University. “The big challenge with community colleges from the start is that they bleed students. Over about half of their students who started community college in the fall left the following year.
In the wake of a pandemic that has resulted in widespread job losses, he said, community colleges should stop withholding transcripts and diplomas from thousands of students for relatively low bills.
“It’s just a scam,” Jenkins said. “Colleges defraud the poor. I’m tired of talking to students from low-income families, and because they haven’t paid library fees, [colleges] refused to publish their transcripts.
In Worcester, Quinsigamond administrators told GBH News the school is now reviewing its policy, which is to withhold transcripts for debts as low as $ 200. GBH News reporting on the issue prompted Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College to reconsider its policies. UMass Boston has relaxed its policy on withholding transcripts for any sizable debt owed by current students.
To attract students, other schools across the country, like Stark State College in Ohio, are offering free classes to high school graduates. Researchers say publishing transcripts and free tuition will not be enough to enroll and retain students who work and care for children.
“You can’t order students the same way you order food,” said Shauna Davis, director of strategy for community college participation at the Lumina Foundation, which supports higher education coverage of GBH News.
Davis, the former executive director of programs at Achieving the Dream, one of the nation’s largest community college networks, said schools that have been successful in retaining their students clearly make the connection between courses and jobs. , and how long it will take. to get a diploma or diploma.
“People say you have to get me from point A to point B by the clearest and most direct route possible and in the shortest possible time,” she said. “People say my time costs too, and especially when I have very little time, I need to work. I have to meet my hierarchy of needs. I am a parent or I take care of myself.
Quinsigamond president Pedraja agrees.
“We can’t wait for students to come here,” said Pedraja, who as a child emigrated from Cuba, grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Miami and was the first in his family to attend college. Like many Quinsigamond students, English is his second language.
Even as birth rates and high school graduation rates decline in the state, disadvantaged populations continue to grow. He said it is essential for community college enrollments to rebound.
“Unless we help low-income students, minority communities, our immigrants, be successful, we will not be able to meet the workforce needs of the Commonwealth,” said Pedraja.