Where Students Aren’t

How has the pandemic affected who’s going to college this fall? Some early numbers are in, published this week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The broad picture is this: Undergraduate enrollments are down (by 2.5 percent) and graduate enrollments are up (by nearly 4 percent).

One of the clearest messages in the data: Community colleges are in trouble. Their enrollments are down by 8 percent from a year ago. The drop is biggest among Black students, whose enrollments at community colleges fell by 12 percent.

“The fall data continue to show how much higher the stakes are for community college students during disruptions like the pandemic and the subsequent recession,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“The picture will become clearer as more data come in, but at this point the large equity gap for students who rely on community colleges for access to higher education is a matter of critical concern.”

This year’s patterns run counter to historical trends, in which more students tended to flock to community colleges during economic downturns. In the past, that’s helped campuses weather state budget cuts. The colleges can’t count on that now.

What’s different this time?

Earlier this month, Iris Palmer, senior advisor for higher education and workforce at New America, wrote about what she was hearing from community-college leaders. Some individual campuses did report strong summer enrollment, but much of that, she said, was from traditional freshmen or high-school students in dual-enrollment programs.

Here are some reasons Palmer said adults might not be heading back to community colleges:

  • They are unsure about where the labor market is going and mostly seem to be hoping that their old jobs will come back.
  • With uncertainty about their children’s school situations, many parents seem to be putting off their own education.
  • They don’t know that they will get the learning experience they want right now.

In Colorado, Jason Gonzales, our reporter with Chalkbeat, found similar trends. There, community college enrollment is down 9 percent, he reported. The declines were pronounced among first-generation students, whose numbers dropped by 16 percent — and among students eligible for Pell Grants, whose enrollments fell by 14 percent.

The challenges that many community-college students tend to face are exacerbated by the virus, Jason wrote, such as figuring out how to juggle school with work and with caring for their families.

Betsy Oudenhoven, president of Community College of Aurora, told Jason that enrollment at her college is down by 18 percent from last year. “It just feels like layers and layers,” she said, “that have hit our students really hard.”

+ Read more from Jason about the stakes for low-income and first-generation students who are opting out of college this fall.

— Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood

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The Virus & Campus

We saw plenty of railing against colleges for their fall opening plans this week (Bloomberg editorial says “Colleges Are Making the Coronavirus Crisis Worse”; CNN column gives them a failing grade).

CNN’s summary of the problems:

  • Schools placed the burden on students
  • Colleges and universities weren’t fully prepared
  • Administrators were forced to manage conflicting interests

On that last point, here’s Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief for the Science family of journals and former chancellor at Chapel Hill: “Universities, particularly public ones, are hearing public health experts that advise one thing, a board that says something else, a governor that says another thing and maybe even a system of schools that want something else. That creates this paralysis that we’re seeing.”

But the Washington Post had the most nuanced piece this week on all this mess, exploring why some places are a disaster and others — even some big universities — seem to be managing better. Did anyone expect Arizona State University, with 74,000 students in a state where the virus is surging, to weather it better than Gettysburg College, with 2,200 students in small-town Pennsylvania?

“The reopening of colleges amid a deadly pandemic has brought upheaval and uncertainty to campuses from coast to coast, with a staggering academic and emotional toll for students. But the chaos is not uniform.”

A Soaring Monument to Learning

The Cathedral of Learning in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh region — where we’ll be adding a higher ed reporter through our partnership with PublicSource — is home to dozens of colleges. It’s also home to one of the nation’s most recognizable academic buildings.

The Cathedral of Learning, a 535-foot Gothic Revival tower completed in the 1930s on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh, stands as the tallest educational building in the Western Hemisphere. (The only taller university building in the world is the main building of Moscow State University, in Russia.)

Its origin story is full of soaring rhetoric about the symbolism of erecting a towering monument to the pursuit of education.

Practically, the 42-story tower helped solve campus space issues, as enrollment spiked after World War I. But a university account of the tower’s history focuses just as much on the meaning of its design: a “visible inspiration to all who approached the city,” a building that would “carry the message that education was the result of aspiring to great heights,” a structure whose “sweeping proportions would symbolize the spirit and achievement of Pittsburgh.”

“They shall find wisdom here and faith — in steel and stone — in character and thought — they shall find beauty — adventure — and moments of high victory,” said John G. Bowman, the 10th chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh. He was the driving force behind the Cathedral’s creation.

One of the most striking things about the Cathedral’s history, though, is this: It was paid for, in part, by the dimes of more than 97,000 local schoolchildren who were encouraged to “buy a brick” and, in turn, received certificates designating them “Builders of the Cathedral of Learning.”

In fact, the university’s public campaign to finance the construction — through schoolchildren as well as local industries, philanthropists, and other adults — has been recognized as one of the first modern fundraising drives, according to an article published by Pitt in 2007, 70 years after the Cathedral’s dedication.

The drive for money may have had a fair amount to do with all the grandeur, too:

“According to Robert C. Alberts’ Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787–1987, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986), the name Cathedral of Learning is thought to have been first used by Bowman at an announcement dinner on Nov. 6, 1924,” the article said. “Though Bowman is said to have disliked the name, he recognized its publicity value, especially in light of the University’s impending $10 million public fundraising campaign to finance the building’s construction.”


State auditor blasts UC for admitting unqualified students based on wealthy connections
The state auditor found a lot of irregularities, from inappropriate donor influence to questionable student athlete decisions. (calmatters.org)

Amy Coney Barrett, potential Supreme Court nominee, wrote influential ruling on campus sexual assault
The decision made it easier for students accused of sexual assault to challenge universities’ handling of their cases. (www.washingtonpost.com)

‘A perfect storm of financial problems’: How UNC’s losses could extend to $400 million
These revenue shortfalls caused by COVID-19 have only exacerbated UNC’s and the UNC System’s financial troubles from the 2008 financial crisis — leading to questions about how the university will make up for the deficit. (www.dailytarheel.com)

It’ll take more than a pandemic to end the U.S. News rankings
Test-optional may be gaining strength, but a similar wholesale rejection of the rankings isn’t around the corner. (www.educationdive.com)

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Co-founder and editor-in-chief of Open Campus