Enrollment is down nearly across the board at Cuyahoga Community College, as it is for the bulk of two-year institutions across the country, for the third fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

And though nearly half of the City of Cleveland’s population is Black, only 23 percent of the college’s roughly 15,770 students are.

But Michael Baston, just past the 100-day mark of his Tri-C presidency, remains enthusiastic about the college’s future, where a credit hour costs $124.54 for a Cuyahoga County resident. He was excited in a recent discussion with Signal Cleveland when he shared ideas on how to better connect with city residents as well as to streamline the enrollment process.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The number of Black students at the college has dropped about 36 percent from the 2019 fall semester to the 2022 fall semester. What are your plans to get those students back?

We find that some of our enrollment processes have been a bit cumbersome and hard to navigate.

I have a team right now working with us to refine the enrollment process. I think that that will go a long way to making it easier for all students, but particularly for Black students, to have a better experience on the front end of coming into the institution.

Secondly, I’m going to be working with a lot of specific systems where there are a lot of Black students. Most recently, I met with the head of our county housing authority to talk about ways in which we can better support those folks who are moving into public housing, [offering] easy enrollment into our institution so that not just the housing issue can be dealt with, but [also] the educational factors that often challenge and frustrate people in terms of their economics. We can begin to address that through systems they are already navigating. We can do it as a companion approach.

If we change the way in which we embrace people, if we double down on expanding the pool, if we make ourselves sort of inescapable in some systems, we will increase the number of all students, but most specifically Black students in our city that currently don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of what we offer. Because it’s not always as clear in terms of how you get in and the support that you need to stay in and move forward.

Where else do you see inroads you could make to really meet students or potential students where they are?

Part of it is understanding how to give students the resources they need that are “just-in-time” support and not “just-in-case” support.

For example, oftentimes we do what we call an autopsy review when students have already dropped out. Well, it’s too late then. How are we making sure that we have the appropriate advising infrastructure, the counseling infrastructure that better supports understanding where the students are while they’re on the journey?

We’re also going to be working with the National Academic Advising Association to help us streamline some of the robust supports we have to make them very, very inescapable for students.

One of the biggest systems here is the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. What’s been your relationship with CMSD, and where do you see that going, especially as the district will soon have a new CEO?

We’ve always had a very strong history with CMSD. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been working with current CEO Eric Gordon specifically on thinking about how we can better integrate our supports. We are already engaged in supporting the efforts of CMSD.

As we prepare for the new person to come, I hope to do that even in a more intentional way to ensure that we are better embedded in the work that’s happening in CMSD. There are a lot of efforts right now to get the students in the programs to really start to have a more career-oriented approach and think about how they can get college credits while they’re in high school.

I’m very interested in helping and working even more intentionally with our “Say Yes to Education” programs and others to ensure that we start the process of career development and career exploration in the high schools and the other parts of K-12 so when students get to the community college they will have more clarity as we help them find a path, stay on that path, learn what they need, and then transition and finish strong.

Enrollment of students 19 years old and under has dropped at Tri-C since 2019, too. Presumably lots of those people attended CMSD. Why do you think that is, and what could be done to reverse those numbers going forward?

We’ve got to understand that there is a factor at play now that has not been in play in the past. That is the rise of the gig economy. We have to understand in the last recession we didn’t have DoorDash, Uber Eats, and all these kinds of things in the way in which we have them in America today.

We’ve got to be able to talk to this generation about how they have options and how we can come alongside them with education to support the entrepreneurial dreams of so many of those young people who are deciding not to come to college, not even to finish high school in some cases.

We have to bring an entrepreneurial lens and frame into educational processes at the K-12 space as well as in the college space. I think if we begin to do that, we will win people back.

That doesn’t mean you’re going to win back a lot of young people to go full-time. They still want options. But you want to be able to get young people to understand that they need a fuller education.

That means colleges, universities, and, most specifically, community colleges have to think about engaging young people where they are and talking to them in ways that don’t put them down or criticize them because they have what we might consider a side hustle. We want to help them understand that there are a range of possibilities for your economic destiny.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Signal Cleveland, in partnership with Open Campus.

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