A student finishes classes for the day at El Paso Community College's Valle Verde campus. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Despite classes resuming last month for the new academic school year, El Paso Community College is still working on bringing students back.

“We saw excellent gains in enrollment (but) we’re not exactly where we want to be,” Carlos Amaya, interim vice president of Student and Enrollment Services said about the 24,375 students enrolled for the fall semester.

Enrollment for the current fall semester dropped 6% compared to the fall 2020 semester. That follows a 10% decrease in enrollment from fall 2019 to the fall of 2020.

Nationally, public two-year colleges were hit the hardest last year among higher education institutions with an overall 10% decrease in enrollment.

While enrollment continues for the fall semester’s shorter sessions, called minimesters, until October, the school is not expected to see drastic changes in their count this year.

Despite the collective drop in the enrollment numbers, one group whose participation increased is first-time college students.

“Our first time in college students, those are the ones that we saw a big decline in last fall,” Amaya said. “Those are the graduates from high school (and) so far, we’ve seen a 21% increase in first-time college students.”

But for students who’ve already started at EPCC, making sure they return has been a challenge for school officials.

“One thing that’s been a big focus, pre-pandemic, and continuing to the pandemic is retention,” Amaya said. “Once we have a student attending EPCC, that’s our audience. So a big focus we want to do is get to the bottom of why some of these students didn’t come back.”

A student walks to class at El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde campus on Sept. 13. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

This year the school has seen a 8% decrease in continuing students compared to last fall.

For those who have returned, Amaya credits the availability of federal funds for students during the pandemic as why some students were able to continue their studies.

“Essentially most of these students could attend EPCC cost free,” he said.

Earlier this year, EPCC received over $100 million in Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds and reserved 50% of those funds for financial aid.

This has resulted in over $1,000 available to individual part and full-time students in addition to what they normally receive through financial aid.

“We’re hoping that this additional benefit is going to help students financially stay in for the semester and then return in the spring and summer,” Amaya said.

Before the start of this school year, EPCC also cleared $3 million of institutional debt for thousands of its students.

“EPCC’s New Beginnings Program eliminated outstanding balances for around 4,700 students who were enrolled during the pandemic in spring, summer and fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021,” school officials said in a press release.

“We want to help students find the resources to emerge from the pandemic, regain financial stability and to be able to continue to pursue their dreams,” said Keri Moe, associate vice president of External Relations, Communication & Development at EPCC.

Amaya said conversations are still ongoing with EPCC President William Serrata on how to target all students to determine what the college needs to do to ensure their return.

Female enrollment saw a 7% decrease and enrollment for males saw a 5% loss this semester compared to last fall. Amaya credits it to the various personal responsibilities students may have outside of school.

“We know that the challenges for boys and young men is the workplace,” Amaya said. “So there’s job opportunities that (they’re) taking on for instance, in the energy industry or the gas fields instead of going to higher education.”

For female enrollment, Amaya hypothesizes that lack of child care could be a reason why enrollment is decreasing.

He said that communication is ongoing with students about the availability of funds and upcoming deadlines to enroll in classes.

But despite the decreases, Amaya said EPCC is still hopeful for the future.

“We’re very optimistic in our view of the opportunities and what we’re providing for students,” Amaya said. “We want the students to come back because we know it’s important for them, for our community, (and) for the economy.”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.