The pandemic has upended the lives of students across Allegheny County, but it has been especially disruptive to those at the county’s community college.

Thousands fewer students have enrolled in the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC], which saw a 16.6% drop in students in fiscal year 2021. That came on top of a nearly 6% decline from the fiscal year before.

Students at CCAC were directly affected by the pandemic in many ways, CCAC President Quintin Bullock said. Early on, they lost entry-level jobs and positions in industries clobbered by the virus, such as the hospitality industry. They grappled with uncertainty when vaccines were not yet available. And all the while, they’ve navigated financial worries and food insecurity, as well as childcare and job responsibilities.

The disruption has been unrelenting, Bullock said. “Then, here comes the Delta variant, then comes the Omicron variant, that, surprisingly, directly impacted students.”

Community colleges across the country have seen the sharpest declines in enrollment since the pandemic began. Though the nationwide decline was smaller this fall than the last, the drops were even steeper at community colleges in Pennsylvania: Fall 2021 enrollment fell 13.1% from fall 2020, following an 11.6% decline from 2019 to 2020, according to January data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The loss of students pursuing post-secondary education at CCAC may impact not only an individual’s financial wellness but also the region’s economic vitality, as more than nine in 10 of CCAC graduates go on to live and work locally. Community colleges like CCAC support area employers and train workers in industries the country relies on, said Tom Brock, director of the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

“If fewer students are going to community college, getting those degrees, our society will pay the long-term consequences,” Brock said. “Community colleges tie into all of this in terms of our country’s long-term ambitions and hopes for itself.”

What’s causing the declines?

Facing remote learning challenges and scheduling conflicts, 22-year-old Andria Linamen decided to put her studies at CCAC on hold for the spring 2021 semester.

Her upcoming classes were going to be difficult, and she wanted to be able to take them in person to better understand the course material. Linamen, who continues to work full time, wasn’t able to find evening classes that worked with her schedule either.

There were about 600 fewer courses offered at CCAC for the spring 2022 semester than the spring 2020 semester. The number of evening classes declined from 459 to 358 between those semesters, though these classes continued to make up about 17% of the college’s course offerings. Elizabeth Johnston, chief marketing and public relations officer for CCAC, said in an email that the college does not reduce course offerings but adds them based on demand.

“I just knew that that wasn’t going to work for me, so I put a pause on my education,” Linamen said.

A change in major also contributed to Linamen’s pause. In fall 2021, she returned to CCAC to study nursing instead of cybersecurity, as she found the new career path to be reliable and more in line with her aspirations. Temporarily halting her studies, though, was discouraging.

“You see some of the people that, you know, are in the same program or like the same age group as you, and they’re all graduating and stuff, and you’re still stuck in school,” she said. “And not only that, but you’re struggling, still, to try and work full time, pay your bills, be OK financially and still worry about getting good grades and moving on and finishing classes.”

Vanessa West, 21, decided not to continue her studies at CCAC twice during the pandemic as she initially struggled to navigate online learning and had difficulty concentrating on her coursework at home.

“I have many siblings and a lot going on physically at home, so it was easy for me to get, like, overwhelmed or have other things to do,” she said of the spring 2020 semester, when she first postponed her studies. “When I started trying to go and try to figure out how Blackboard worked and how the classes were doing, it was just a lot, and I was behind.”

West plans to enroll at CCAC again and hopes to pursue a career in nursing.

The shift in instruction and services to online and hybrid formats is one factor behind the nationwide decline in enrollment at community colleges, Brock said. The pandemic’s impact on employment and household finances, as well as students’ concerns regarding COVID-19, have also played a significant role.

Over the first two years of the pandemic, about one out of five CCAC students reported worrying about having access to health care, and about the same number of students also said they experienced housing or food insecurity. More than one-third said they were concerned about paying their bills.

Demographics of the declines

Community colleges are crucial for providing access to higher education, Brock said, as they more often serve students of color, first-generation college students and those who are low income.

CCAC saw about a 32% decline in enrollment among Black students between fiscal year 2019 and 2021, while the number of enrolled Hispanic and Latino students decreased by about 18%. Enrollment dropped by about 20% among white students, who make up the largest percentage of the student body, and declined by about 47% among American and Alaska Native students, who make up one of the smallest. Among those who identified as “unknown,” enrollment dropped by about 21%.

“Individuals and communities that were hardest hit by the pandemic, whether in terms of health, whether in terms of employment and employment security, you know, those very communities, those very people, those very individuals are also the ones least likely to show up at community college now,” Brock said.

Sto-Rox Junior-Senior High School. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

The disruptions of the pandemic are also impacting local high schoolers, including those at Sto-Rox Junior-Senior High School, located in a district where more than 90% of students come from low-income families and about 74% are students of color. Many of Sto-Rox’s recent graduates have shifted their post-secondary plans during the pandemic, and they’re staying connected to the high school for support, said Joe Herzing, a counselor for grades 10 through 12.

Herzing’s kept in touch with students who graduated in 2020 and 2021 longer than he has with all other graduating classes he’s served since beginning his job in fall 2005. One of his students left Slippery Rock University to attend CCAC. Another is now looking at trade schools, as going to college didn’t work out for them. A third enrolled at CCAC, but they’re now considering other options.

Online learning has been a sore point, with some students citing it as the reason they left school or are postponing their post-secondary plans. Some lack these plans altogether, and Herzing is sharing opportunities with them as they come along. But the counselor is clear: Students at Sto-Rox want to go to college.

“The desire to go to college has not diminished,” he said. “It’s just the leeriness of it, the timing of it.”

Long-term consequences

Attending college leads to short- and long-term improvements in earnings prospects.

CCAC has found that students who earned an associate’s degree at the college could earn $11,000 more each year than those with less of an education, Bullock said.

“It validates the true value of getting education, earning a credential of an associate’s degree, because of the financial impact,” he said. “It also shows that we contribute significant dollars back to our region by the impact of our students, faculty and staff and that purchasing ability.”

During fiscal year 2019–20, the activities of CCAC and its students supported 15,705 local jobs and contributed $1.3 billion in income to the county’s economy, per a study the college conducted with a contractor. CCAC is a “vital institution” in the region, Bullock said.

The decline in community college enrollment has also meant that the country has fewer well-trained workers for jobs that need to be filled, such as those in health care or trades related to construction, Brock said.

“Individuals lose out by not going to college, but the broader community, the society as a whole, loses out too,” Brock said.

Lessons learned and supports provided

The limited in-person exposure to CCAC offered to local high schoolers during the pandemic, once critical to their college decisions, may also be a factor in the enrollment decline. In-person tours of CCAC’s campus returned this fall for the first time since the pandemic. The college previously offered virtual open houses for prospective students.

The college’s existing efforts to encourage enrollment and retention include dual-enrollment programs at high schools and partnerships with employers to offer high schoolers educational programs that align with careers and opportunities in specific industries, Bullock said. CCAC has also expanded its outreach to the county’s 43 school districts and held “re-engagement meetings” with school districts in November and December to provide information about the college’s offerings for high schoolers.

For community colleges, the pandemic has also hammered home the importance of providing basic supports to enrolled students, Brock said.

“Many students just need help with basic food needs, nutritional needs, transportation support, other kinds of things, in order to attend college,” Brock said. “Some institutions have done a very effective job in creating those kinds of supports.”

Many initiatives that CCAC has implemented to support students in recent years have been expanded during the pandemic, Bullock said.

CCAC also launched a resource navigator program in 2019, which connects students with services on and off campus in areas such as mental health, housing and child care. The navigators have worked with 943 students since, according to data provided by the college.

The pandemic has also taught community colleges that providing instruction and services online is crucial for meeting the needs of students, particularly those who work, have children or live far from campus, Brock said. Services at CCAC — including advising, tutoring and financial aid — are now accessible online, and students can borrow laptops and seek funding for internet support, too.

“While online services, online instruction doesn’t work for everyone, or doesn’t work for every kind of program, we need to have it in our toolkit,” he said.

Growth and recovery

By the end of summer 2021, course completion, withdrawal and success, as well as average GPA, had for years been trending positively at CCAC. But the fall 2021 semester “appears to have been the most challenging semester for students of the past five years,” Johnston said. CCAC is working to understand why last semester was particularly difficult for students and to assess how the college can further support them.

There are silver linings at CCAC, though.

More than 100 programs, such as those in biology, cybersecurity, and accounting, have seen declines in enrollment since fall 2019, but about 25 programs — including those focused on court reporting, data analytics and electrical construction technology — have seen growth.

Andria Linamen returned to CCAC in fall 2021 to study nursing instead of cybersecurity. (Photo by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource).

Many students are looking to enroll in programs that lead to careers with competitive wages, and this is a time for people to explore new opportunities and further their skills, Bullock said.

“It’s a new beginning for many students,” Bullock said. “The community college is an excellent venue for students to be able to access this training and earn the credential that will align very closely to the ability to secure work.”

This story was fact-checked by Abigail Nemec-Merwede.

Emma Folts covers higher education for PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.