Before the pandemic, Faith Muse was a student at the Community College of Allegheny County. They had fallen in love with special effects work and hoped their studies would lead to a career in the film industry. They made friends, led a club — something they never imagined doing in high school — and broke out of their shell. “The culture really helped me,” Muse said. 

Then, the pandemic struck. After struggling with online learning, the 23-year-old halted their studies in fall 2020 and entered the workforce, sidelining their college plans to become more financially independent. They worked several jobs, including one handling packages at Amazon, before finding employment in film and media.

“I decided: I’m going to go to work, and if it’s in the cards, I will go back to school,” Muse said. “I would love to go back. But because, like I said, I do rent, I have my own place, it’s kind of like, ‘When would that be?’”

Muse is one of more than 5,500 people who have left the Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] during the pandemic. But CCAC’s enrollment struggles stretch back further — in fall 2022, its student body was half the size it was in fall 2010. 

Early last year, CCAC President Quintin Bullock attributed the pandemic declines to the financial struggles, health concerns and continued personal challenges — from food insecurity to childcare responsibilities — that many students have wrestled with. Yet, as community colleges overall show early signs of recovery, the drops at CCAC have persisted. 

As fewer students show up each fall, the consequences for the college, the region and its residents grow. The college brings in less tuition, a primary source of revenue. Residents risk losing out on significant increases in lifetime earnings if they forego a degree. The region could have fewer candidates to fill crucial jobs, including in health care, potentially exacerbating labor shortages.

Pennsylvania, for example, is straining under a shortage of health care workers, according to the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania. At the same time, enrollment in CCAC’s nursing and allied health programs has dropped by about 30% and 40% since fall 2019, respectively.

“We hire a lot of CCAC graduates,” said Kelly Kassab, chief operating officer of Jefferson and Canonsburg hospitals, in the Allegheny Health Network [AHN]. “If one of our biggest educators is not producing at the same level as they were, it could hurt all of the health systems around here.”

The college has undertaken several efforts to boost enrollment since the pandemic. CCAC launched text, email and call campaigns last fall, partly to explain how the college would help  prospective students to apply. A committee of faculty and administrators have worked for months to develop a five-year enrollment management plan, with insights from a solicited professional association. The college has also entered industry partnerships, including one with AHN.

Board minutes show that those efforts yielded a 4% increase in new student enrollment (53 students) from the spring 2022 to 2023 semester, as of late February, though overall enrollment (8,856 students) continued to decline. 

“We know that our tactics and strategies have made a difference,” said Evon Walters, CCAC’s northwest region president. “Are we there? We’re working towards trying to get back to what we view as normal levels.” 

Some faculty have expressed concern about the state of enrollment. CCAC’s faculty union planned a vote of no-confidence in the college’s president and board of trustees last summer partly due to the administration’s “failure to manage the enrollment crisis,” Pittsburgh City Paper reported. The union’s president declined to comment. 

The Community College of Allegheny County [CCAC] South Campus on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in West Mifflin. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

CCAC did not make Bullock available for an interview, saying he was too busy, but arranged a group interview with several other college officials. In an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bullock criticized recent coverage of the enrollment declines and poor success rates at community colleges and asserted that community colleges serve more diverse, adult students who’ve been particularly harmed by the pandemic.

He also highlighted that community colleges receive less funding than four-year universities. The Center for American Progress reported in 2020 that Pennsylvania community colleges received nearly $9,000 less, per full-time student, than public four-year institutions in the state.

“We do what four-year colleges don’t usually do, and which some can’t … And we do it with less money,” he wrote. “We are still standing and will continue our mission to provide access to affordable high quality education for all.”

A long-term problem

There were roughly 21,200 students enrolled at CCAC in fall 2010, according to board minutes from October of that year. Community college enrollment peaked nationwide around that time as residents sought new careers and skills due to the Great Recession. CCAC did not comment on the factors behind the subsequent declines pre-pandemic, but research points to several likely causes.

Tom Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the strengthening labor market post-recession led more prospective students to enter the workforce. On top of that, many four-year institutions are competing with community colleges over the same pool of students — often with more resources to attract them. 

Community colleges also bear some responsibility for the downward trend, Brock said. At least half of CCAC students drop out year-over-year, according to data the college included in January board minutes. Less than a quarter graduate within six years, or three times the standard length of an associate’s degree for full-time students. Community college students across the country face similar outcomes. 

“The not-so-hidden secret any longer is that the majority of students who begin at community college will not complete,” he said. Prospective students and parents check rankings and success rates to see how they’d fare at specific institutions, and the reported outcomes at community colleges nationally could deter them. 

CCAC has worked to attract and support students for years. By April 2017, the college had created a “4 Point Plan” to recruit high schoolers and developed a separate plan to improve retention on its Allegheny Campus, board minutes show. 

Fall enrollment appeared to stabilize by 2019, having hovered around 16,000 for at least three years, according to board minutes. But a few months later, the pandemic upended thousands of students’ plans for college and sent enrollment into a tailspin. 

Over the past year, CCAC has drawn on outside help to “address some of the long-term, systemic issues that, in essence, speaks to us pivoting and being more responsive,” Walters said. The college has consulted with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, a nonprofit professional organization, to identify areas of improvement and develop the enrollment management plan.

The college wants to attract adult learners and high schoolers by collaborating with school districts, foundations and community organizations on outreach and programming. Programs that allow high schoolers to take college courses have been a life vest of growth for many community colleges, even though they can bring smaller financial returns. High schoolers made up about 5% of CCAC’s student body last fall. 

CCAC aims to re-evaluate on-campus programs, improve engagement with students and help prospective learners understand their financial aid options, said Daniel Duffy, executive director of the college’s Military and Veterans Services and co-chair of the Strategic Enrollment Planning Committee. The plan is not a “one-and-done” effort, he said, and will be revised based on future trends and data.

It’s important for the committee “to keep people accountable and actionable to the things that we’ve set out and agreed upon as an institution, and then evolve as needed,” Duffy said. 

Demand and growth

A CCAC spokesperson said that about 30 of the college’s roughly 150 degree and certificate programs have seen enrollment increases of at least 20% since last spring. But in some cases, there weren’t many students to begin with: Several of the 30 programs enrolled fewer than 30 students last fall. One enrolled only three. 

“I definitely think it is promising that enrollments have stabilized and are increasing in some fields,” Brock, of the Community College Research Center, wrote in an email. But he added that community colleges are still serving fewer students than they were a decade ago, which raises financial concerns.

“It may not be such a bad thing, though, if smaller enrollments help community colleges serve the students they have more effectively. That will require changes in their business model and how they deliver instruction and services,” he said.

If programs grow, there could be benefits that ripple through the community. 

CCAC’s paraprofessional programs, which train students to serve as teacher’s assistants or classroom aides, enrolled 12 students last fall. More graduates could help the Sto-Rox School District, which reported in late April that about 70% of its current vacancies are of paraprofessionals. 

Sto-Rox Superintendent Megan Van Fossan said that “partnering with them in the future really makes sense, especially around our areas where we have a pretty significant vacancy issue.” So far, the district has worked with the college to offer courses to students. 

Overall, there’s a market for community college graduates. More than half of February job vacancies at employers within Allegheny County required training after high school but not a four-year degree, WESA reported

CCAC has found that more of its students are looking to quickly enter the workforce, and the college is hopeful that a $45 million workforce training and development center will meet local and regional needs. The three-story center, slated to officially open in spring 2024, will house programs ranging from robotics to culinary arts.

Community colleges need to improve student outcomes to rebuild enrollment, but they also need employers to seek out partnerships with them, said Joshua Wyner, founder and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the nonprofit Aspen Institute. 

“Everybody needs to lean in,” he said. “Every employer in a community should be asking themselves, ‘How can I help the community college deliver the talent that we need?’”

A partnership with plans for growth 

While working at AHN’s Jefferson Hospital, Chelsey Durst began considering a career change. She’s now enrolled in CCAC’s medical laboratory technician program, where she’s learning to run tests to diagnose and prevent diseases. 

She signed up after hearing about AHN’s Talent Attraction Program, which works with CCAC and other local educators to help high schoolers, adult learners and entry-level AHN employees pursue careers in health care. The health network launched the program last year to tackle vacancies and improve employee diversity. 

Chelsey Durst works in a lab at AHN’s Jefferson Hospital on Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Jefferson Hills. Durst enrolled in CCAC’s medical laboratory technician program after learning about AHN’s Talent Attraction Program, which works with CCAC and other local educators to help high school students, adult learners and entry-level AHN employees pursue careers in health care. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The health network covers students’ tuition at CCAC, helps provide transportation to the college and can connect them with personal support, such as access to a Healthy Food Center. Forty people began coursework this academic year, the majority at CCAC. AHN is expanding the program across its hospitals in hopes of graduating nearly 200 CCAC students each year. 

“This program’s a win-win for everybody,” said Kassab, the chief operating officer at Jefferson. “CCAC is getting more students in their classes, which they appreciate very much. The hospital is getting employees. The students are getting jobs in career tracks.”

For Durst, being able to participate in the program has “fast-tracked my desire to go back to school because I didn’t have the financial burden,” she said.

As Durst continues her studies at CCAC, Muse, the former student, continues to work. The college has sent them emails about registering for classes, which they’ve saved. They enjoyed their time at the college — the pandemic just got in the way.

When students graduate from CCAC, the Pittsburgh community reaps the benefits, said Charlene Newkirk, the college’s southeast region president.

“Our value is really our students and what they give to this community,” Newkirk said. “They become taxpayers, their children go to the schools and then they work in Pittsburgh and bring economic value to the region.”

Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Christine Graziano.

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.