Early data shows Cuyahoga Community College and its peers across the region are seeing enrollment drops this fall.

Community college enrollment plummeted across the country last fall amid the pandemic. Early data shows drops are continuing at local institutions this semester.

Boosting enrollment isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. Lots of factors are in play. More than half of students at two-year public institutions are women and/or people of color, two groups disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

Angela Johnson, vice president of access and completion at Cuyahoga Community College, said the continuation of the pandemic played a role in the college’s roughly 7% drop in total enrollment from fall 2020. About 17,500 students currently attend.

Those who are parents — and national figures show about a quarter of community college students are — told officials at Tri-C that uncertainty around their kids’ K-12 school schedules influenced choices they made about their own educations. The strength of the current job market affected things, too.

“A lot of students are getting jobs, because the market is in their favor in a lot of areas,” she said. “Lots of high-paying jobs where students are trying to make the decision between school or work.”

Things at Stark State College stayed about the same. Full-time enrollment fell 1%, and the North Canton campus’ headcount dropped about 2%, to 10,629. Staying just about flat was in line with projections, said Robyn Steinmetz, director of marketing and communications at the college.

It’s credited, at least in part, to rounds of relief funding the college received during the past year. It allowed the campus to do some “creative” things, Steinmetz said. That includes offering a semester of free tuition for 2021 high school graduates or those who earned their GEDs.

The campus hasn’t had this many recent grads enroll since 2013. Steinmetz said the boost spoke to the fact that high school seniors and their families were looking for both a good deal and an option that came with a safety net. This fall marked another far-from-normal semester.

“We’re still in a pandemic,” she said. “Things are still changing. Colleges have to make decisions at the drop of a hat, so maybe it’s a good idea to have my students commute, stay close to home.”

New-student enrollment is up nearly 5% at Lakeland, too. Officials at the Kirtland campus said they define that group as being comprised of three types of students: those joining directly from high school, those who are at least a year post-high school, and those taking classes while in high school.

The rate of delayed high school students, that second group, grew by about 5% at Tri-C. Students returning to LCCC after some time away increased by 6% compared with fall 2020. Officials at Lorain noted that rate included upticks of both students of color and men, populations that saw declines last fall.

Comb through data provided by institutions, and you’ll see some other year-over-year bright spots, too, such as transfers rising nearly 4% at Tri-C; Lakeland’s 16% increase in new high schoolers enrolling for classes through the state’s College Credit Plus program; or the 80% of Pell-eligible students who are continuing to utilize an effort at LCCC designed to help bump up retainment by offering more support.

Yet overall, things look more grim when compared with pre-pandemic numbers. Total enrollment at Cuyahoga Community College, for example, is nearly 26% lower this semester than it was at the same point in 2019.

The college is being thoughtful when analyzing specific areas of decline, said Tri-C’s Johnson. Some areas, like the declining rates of high school students enrolling, can be understood more easily. The yield there can be simpler to predict, since officials know the number of students set to graduate. The number of Ohio’s graduating high school seniors is projected to keep dwindling.

But other sectors are harder to figure out.

“The adult students are the ones that are a lot more tough for us to understand in terms of what recovery opportunities are there,” Johnson said.

It’s pushing college officials to reevaluate things, like looking at the needs of the local economy to figure out how both credit and non-credit programs could fill gaps.

And it’s not enough to just offer courses, she said. Flexibility will be key, whether that’s in modality or time to complete. The number of part-time students is estimated to grow as people continue to juggle their out-of-classroom responsibilities.

The college is being “a lot” more responsive, Johnson said, in trying to understand adult students.

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.