Community colleges are the workhorse of many higher-ed systems, attracting students with greater flexibility and lower prices. They also serve people whose lives have been severely disrupted by the pandemic — and that’s led to an enrollment nosedive.

Fall enrollment at two-year public colleges dropped about 10% compared with the year before — nearly five times the shift for four-year public and private universities.

The enrollment of male students, already on the decline, took the brunt of it. Things were especially bad for Black men at community colleges. Their national enrollment fell 19%. Only Native American men saw a bigger decrease.

The rates were even worse for some of Northeast Ohio’s institutions. Black male enrollment fell 33%, to about 1,360 students, at Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Community College. Other community colleges, while enrolling fewer Black men, still saw their numbers fall sharply from the previous year — Lakeland at 26%, Stark State at 13% and Lorain County at 6.5%.

No group of people are a monolith. But for some Black male students, this past year may turn out to be merely a pause. Yet others, who left because of the pandemic, may never return.

That fear, she believes, centers more on students who typically enroll straight out of high school. The freshmen enrollment of Black male and female community college students fell by nearly one-third nationwide last fall, far higher than the 19% of their two-year peers overall and a 10.5% total drop at public four-year institutions.

Most Black men at community colleges, though, enroll somewhere in their mid-to-late 20s, typically after having a job or joining the military. That’s according to Frank Harris III, the co-director at San Diego State University’s Community College Equity Assessment Lab. This group may be more likely to return to the workforce instead of taking classes.

“For those students, they’ve already had a taste of what it’s like to make ends meet without college,” he said. “It’s not easy, it’s not desirable, but they have the capacity to do it.”

Harris pointed out Black men also have dealt with barriers to higher education that existed way before the pandemic.

“There are microaggressions, there are stereotypes,” he said. “They are treated as though they don’t belong there.”

Last year exposed more, including a reckoning on race and a pandemic that disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities in many ways, including economically and from a health standpoint.

With the shift to a majority of online classes, the year also further underscored the digital divide. In an April survey of about 13,000 community college students nationwide, nearly half of Black students said they had to share a computer with a family member. Close to one-third said they lacked consistent internet access. Even though many institutions provided devices and hot spots, the transition was tough.

“Students said, ‘I’ll be back when you all come back, we’ll be back when you have more classes on ground,’ “ said Angela Johnson, Tri- C’s vice president of enrollment management.

Johnson said the biggest challenge for Black male students who left revolved around finances. Layoff notices came in, hours got cut. Some turned toward Amazon warehouse positions and gig economy jobs. Going to school slid to the back-burner.

“They really had to find opportunities that really could sustain them financially,” she said. “They felt like they had lots of family financial commitments that as a male, they’re the supporter, they are the provider.”

Last fall, challenges seemed to keep piling up for Quantez Spears, 25, a Lakeland Community College alum who’s working toward his bachelor’s degree through a partnership between the college and Franklin University.

His roommate tested positive for the virus at one point. It forced him to quarantine and miss shifts at his job. No work meant no money. The semester’s financial aid had red tape around it he had to figure out, too. It all felt overwhelming.

“As a Black man, I’m not sure if it’s a cultural thing, but asking for help or getting the right help is a problem, or the fact that you don’t know exactly where to go is a problem,” he said.

Spears tapped into the relationships he built on campus. The student government association gave him money for books. He talked with his peers in the Pathfinders organization. It’s the college’s professional development group for African American male students. He said the support was vital.

Jeffery Linn Thorpe Jr. knows the feeling.

The Tri-C student, 41, prefers hands-on learning. Last year, after struggling through an online math class, he said he considered quitting. Family support and those he connected with through one of the college’s TRIO programs, part of a federal initiative aimed at helping first-generation and low-income students, really helped.

“They stayed in my ear, ‘Don’t give up, keep going, you’re doing good,’ “ he said.

Those connections are especially important for vulnerable populations who may need additional support, said Gary Carrington. He’s a member of 100 Black Men of Greater Cleveland and created a mentoring program in conjunction with the group called the Collegiate 100.

“When you talk to African American male students, that sense of relationship, that sense of engagement, that sense of reaching out, connecting, building relationships is so huge,” said Carrington, also a psychology professor at Tri-C. “You lose a big part of that when you move to that online learning environment..”

Local campuses have outreach efforts. Next month, Tri-C is hosting its first virtual Black and Brown Male Summit. Lorain County Community College officials said continued work with community organizations like the Urban League and Black churches is critical.

Stark State wants to develop a new college version of its Focus on African American Men in Education, or FAME, offering. The current iteration offers mentorship opportunities and helps with test preparation for high schoolers.

And as campuses look ahead, San Diego State’s Harris said he hopes this time gives community colleges a chance to reflect as well.

“Nothing is wrong with the students,” Harris said.

Instead, the problem Harris sees is that colleges aren’t traditionally structured to meet students’ needs.

“How do we conform to what works and fits into the lives of students?” he asked.

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