From the Desk of Barbara Robertson

The coronavirus pandemic has had a surprisingly pernicious effect on community college enrollment, and as is often the case in times of social disruption, the fallout threatens underserved populations disproportionately. How we respond to this crisis-in-the-making will likely determine the educational outcomes for many thousands of vulnerable students nationwide.

Enrollment at community colleges typically increases during economic downturns. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, community colleges saw a surge of new students, many of them older adults.

This year’s numbers tell a vastly different story. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall enrollment at public two-year colleges fell 9.5 percent in the fall term, which is nearly nine times the pre-pandemic decrease from fall 2018 to fall 2019. Worse, enrollment by first-year community college students plummeted 18.9 percent. By way of comparison, four-year public and private nonprofit colleges have seen small, single-digit declines in undergraduate enrollment.

Freshman enrollment at community colleges by Native-Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics is especially disconcerting, dropping 29.3, 28.4, and 27.5 percent, respectively. The data for first-year white and Asian students at community colleges are depressing as well, indicating declines of 18.7 and 19.3 percent, respectively.

The key to reversing these alarming trends is increased outreach to students and families across the board, but especially from underserved communities.

Community colleges overwhelmingly serve minority students, those from low-income backgrounds, and those who would be the first in their family to attend college. As we know, these population subsets have suffered acutely from the coronavirus and its economic impacts, including steep job losses in the hospitality and service industries.

What do I mean by outreach? For a start, the sort of things the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara provides through its free financial aid advising service. Foundation program advisors help students and families with scholarship applications, financial aid forms, and award letters and loan programs. We serve approximately 20,000 individuals each year through this program.

While we are very proud of our work in this area, we understand that it must be part of a broader effort if the tide is to be turned.

Any campaign to arrest the erosion of community college enrollment must begin at home. I am aware that many families are facing unprecedented financial challenges, but parents must not lose sight of the inherent value of postsecondary education, and should advise their children accordingly. Community college is without a doubt the best education bargain there is, especially with our local Promise programs.

Teachers, counselors, and community leaders must do their part as well. This means redoubling their efforts to promote community college among those most likely to benefit from it.

This is an important undertaking, one we must all get behind.

Versions of this commentary have appeared on Noozhawk and in the Santa Maria Times.