Cuyahoga Community College

Typically, when the economy contracts, enrollment at community colleges rises as people seek out more job training or head back to school to earn a degree. But the coronavirus pandemic is changing that.

Early numbers for this fall show enrollment at community colleges in Northeast Ohio and nationwide has taken a big hit, down 9.4% nationwide from the same time in 2019.

Black students are some of the most affected. For instance, fall enrollment of Black students fell 23.5% at Cuyahoga Community College compared with fall 2019, well above the 14.2% national drop reported by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center as of late September.

The pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color on many fronts. Angela Johnson, Tri-C’s vice president of enrollment management, said her team has been hearing directly from Black students to learn why that drop may have happened.

“It’s that their families have been impacted by health issues related to COVID,” Johnson said. “It’s that their families have been impacted financially, and have had to take on additional work to help support the family, and manage their situation with their kids in a remote environment.”

The college doesn’t know precisely what’s causing the decline, but the situation mirrors what’s happening at other public, two-year institutions. Researchers at the think tank New America recently outlined a few reasons why community college students may have been hesitant to enroll this semester, including uncertainty over how the labor market may pan out or waiting for a lost job to return post-pandemic. Some also might be dealing with the challenges of their children’s K-12 remote learning plans, leaving them to put their own education on hold in the interim.

Plus, many community college students are juggling a lot outside of the classroom. The average community college student is 28 years old, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Nearly one-third are first-generation college students. Sixty-four percent attend part time, and more than half are women, including Tri-C student Kathy Hanna.

The mother of two’s priorities this semester include parenthood, a job at University Hospitals and her current slate of online nursing courses. It’s not quite the same as in-person offerings, Hanna said.

“Taking care of a computer is definitely very different than taking care of a real-life person,” the 40-year-old Cleveland resident said.

Some students aren’t as interested in online classes. Elyria resident Zarai Aquino calls herself a visual and tactile learner who loves getting real-time engagement with her fellow students and professors. She said the pivot to online learning earlier this year made the graphic design classes she was taking at Lorain County Community College pretty tough.

“Within a month I told my professor, ‘Either you give me the F or I’m doing an incomplete because the work is not getting done,’ ” said Aquino, who is 20. “And the work that was getting done wasn’t the same quality.”

LCCC saw its overall fall numbers clock in at a loss of 2.3% as of late September.

“We’re not surprised that enrollment is down overall,” said Tracy Green, vice president of strategic and institutional development at LCCC. “And that’s really because of the challenges that our students face.”

Green said administrators made two promises to students this semester.

“No students would go without technology, and no student would go hungry,” she said.

So they kept the campus’ food pantry open, stocked with items like canned goods and flash-frozen meals. Green said it saw close to a 40% increase in use as students navigated the pandemic. The campus also provided more technology support, which can be a necessity to take remote classes in areas of Northeast Ohio where the digital divide is already wide. Roughly one-quarter of residents in Elyria don’t have access to broadband internet at home, according to the most recent Census data.

“It wasn’t just ‘I don’t have a laptop, I don’t have WiFi,’ ” Green added. “It was, ‘I’m using WiFi at McDonald’s and I can’t go in there anymore. I’m using WiFi at the college and you’re not going to be open.’ “

Successful online learning goes even further than providing a computer and internet access, according to Laura Barnard, Lakeland Community College’s executive vice president and provost.

“There’s much more to it than that,” Barnard said. “There’s understanding how to communicate in a virtual world with classmates and the instructor.”

The school saw a 16% drop in its first fall session this year. The school created five short learning modules for those who did enroll, billing it as a 30-minute crash course in digital learning, to help better prepare students for their new remote reality. A staffer also acts as what administrators call a “remote concierge” to reach out to students who may need assistance with a device or some tips on how to manage their time.

But changes also bring added costs. These enrollment hits are happening as public higher education institutions nationwide, including community colleges, stare down potential pandemic-related budget cuts at the state level. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine already reduced public campuses’ initial appropriations by 3.8% over the summer to balance the budget of the previous fiscal year.

“Money has always been tight in a community college,” Barnard said. “We’re not Ohio State, unfortunately. We don’t have a football team to help support all of our other operations here. But we don’t want to be Ohio State, either. We like who we are.”

Boosting the bottom line can be done by enrolling, retaining and graduating more students. National early findings reported a 22.7% drop in first-time students at public, two-year institutions.

But several local campuses are already reporting some growth for later or shorter fall sessions. Schools are reaching out to students who have left in an attempt to re-engage with them. And as the country’s economy continues to reel from the pandemic, officials say there’s increased interest in evening and weekend courses, along with certificate programs.

“Just as much as you’re hearing that people are getting laid off, we’re hearing that jobs are being left unfilled,” said Marisa Rohn, vice president of advancement, marketing and strategic partnerships at Stark State College. Roughly 839 fewer students returned to the Stark County campus this fall compared with the previous year.

Rohn said they’re working to further strengthen relationships with local industry leaders and are seeing more career opportunities in fields such as advanced manufacturing, information technology and health care.

“Our challenge is to help our students figure out where their skills and abilities lie and how they align with those in-demand careers and how we can help get them into those positions if that’s where their aptitudes and interests are,” she said. “Because the jobs are there.”

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.