Enrollment has declined across most Colorado colleges and universities during the pandemic, and — much like the impacts of COVID-19 — the most vulnerable were hit the hardest: students of color, low-income learners and those who are the first in their family to go to college.
The state’s public higher-education institutions recorded a 5.2% enrollment drop from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and revenue fell 2.8% overall, according to data from the Colorado Department of Higher Education. The institutions that served the most underrepresented Coloradans were impacted the most negatively, according to state data.
And some Colorado schools that saw enrollment hits last fall when students first returned to campus amid the pandemic are seeing even further drops this semester.
Enrollment across the 13-campus Colorado Community College System fell 6.3% from fall 2020 to spring 2021. All told, enrollment at the community college system this semester declined 9.8% compared to the same time last year, dipping from 78,975 students pre-pandemic to 71,190 students.
“My biggest concern is that we are going to take a huge step back this year in terms of pursuing our No. 1 goal, which is closing attainment gaps that reflect racial demographics,” said Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College System. “For years, we’ve known in Colorado that our white population has been much more successful at earning secondary credentials than our communities of color. We’ve been trying as a state to increase credential attainment for those students of color who are often low-income. Now, I think we’re going backwards.”
Within Colorado Community College’s enrollment drop, the biggest gaps include:
- First-generation college students, down 15.5% from 39,259 students to 33,193
- Black students, down 11% from 4,335 to 3,844
- Pell eligible (low-income students), down 16.6% from 22,090 to 18,429
“Those are the students who we serve primarily at the community colleges,” Garcia said. “These are students limited by financial resources, academic preparation, transportation. They’re place-bound, they’re parents or working full time or part time. We’re really the only higher education option for them, and if they don’t come to us, then they just don’t go.”
Although the enrollment drop takes a dent out of college budgets in lost tuition dollars, a greater threat looms in the eyes of higher education leaders: losing out on educating the students whose life trajectories would most benefit from a postsecondary degree.
“That impacts our ability to meet all the workforce needs that our state is facing,” Garcia said. “These are the students that need us most.”
While among the most impacted, Colorado’s community colleges were not the only institutions that faced an enrollment drop during the pandemic.
Colorado State University’s spring undergraduate enrollment is down 3.6% from last spring, from 22,566 students to 21,776. The University of Colorado Boulder’s spring enrollment is down 0.9% from the same semester last year, from 33,073 to 32,777.
Metropolitan State University of Denver is down 6.2% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, dipping from 18,917 students to 17,743. MSU Denver’s enrollment dropped even more — 9.6% — from fall 2020 to spring 2021.
The drop in tuition dollars that comes with lower enrollment is especially distressing in a state like Colorado, where higher education is funded 48th in the nation and relies heavily on students and their families footing the bill. The enrollment downturn has cost Colorado’s Community College System $37.5 million in tuition, fees and auxiliary revenues in the past year.
“We rely more on tuition revenue than we do on the state general fund,” Garcia said. “If we’re not generating that tuition revenue, we have to lay off people, consider shutting down facilities, we’re not able to invest in the technology we need to deliver courses remotely. The availability of programs is at risk. Our ability to meet the workforce needs of our communities is at risk. These efforts are already happening. We’re going to have to re-evaluate if enrollment doesn’t rebound for the fall. We’re going to have to make more cuts. The institutions, themselves, are at risk.”
Even so, the thought that most upset Garcia was considering the at-risk students whose pandemic stressors forced their hand and put a hold on their college education.
“Our concerns are around enrollment, but more so our concerns are around the students that aren’t enrolled,” said Leslie Taylor, Colorado State University’s vice president of enrollment. “Worrying about students who opted out is a big concern. When are they going to come back?”
“It wasn’t going to work out”
Lindsay Pryor, a 39-year-old mother of two living in Falcon, was sure 2020 would be the year higher education would finally fall into place for her. Pryor’s first and second attempts at college didn’t quite stick, but when she went back to Pikes Peak Community College in 2018, the puzzle pieces of her postsecondary life began aligning.
Pryor was getting straight A’s. Her dream of becoming a registered dietician had never been closer.
Then came the pandemic.
Pryor found it nearly impossible to focus on her own studies with two kids at home who needed help with remote schooling. Her grades began to slip, causing panic about losing her full scholarship from her Native American tribe, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
“In the summer, we thought maybe it would be normal by fall, but it wasn’t and we realized it wasn’t going to work out,” Pryor said. “My kids were still e-learning, and they needed me. I didn’t enroll for the fall semester, and I was disappointed because this was my third attempt at college, and this time it was really going well. I know I’m going to do it. I’m going to finish. It’s just going to take me a long time.”
To combat students dropping out, Garcia said the Colorado Community College System is personally calling students who were previously enrolled who didn’t sign back up for fall or spring semester.
“We don’t have millions to spend on TV and radio advertising that for-profit colleges have, so it’s tough to get our message out, but we want to remind students that while they may be out of work now, their best opportunity to get a job in the future is if they use this period to pursue their education and learn a new skill,” Garcia said.
A campus like Metropolitan State University of Denver — with nearly half of its undergraduate student population comprised of students of color and 57% first-generation college students — is hoping to learn from this enrollment downturn to figure out how to better serve their community.
“We’re thinking this is temporary,” said Mary Sauceda, MSU Denver’s associate vice president of enrollment management. “We’re thinking enrollment is going to rebound. There are a lot of students taking time off. Students may be thinking they’ll wait until they get the vaccine and then go back. We know with the economy it’s not going to bounce back immediately and folks will want to go back to school.”
As part of its strategy, MSU Denver has a new director of diverse recruitment, Cameron Simmons, who plans to canvas places like churches and community centers — virtually for now, but in-person when safe — to find students who might not know higher education is an option for them.
MSU Denver also is offering a new payment plan that allows students to pay tuition in monthly installments. The Auraria campus institution is working to make its transfer programs a more seamless experience, Sauceda said.
“Light at the end of the tunnel”
Lucia Delgado, CSU’s director of college access, and her team have been working to stay connected to underrepresented prospective and current students. The Access Center staff transitioned their wraparound services for first-generation, low-income, ethnically and racially diverse, and non-traditionally aged students online because of the pandemic and committed to engaging the young adults they serve during a tumultuous time.
“We’re talking about students who have multilingual talents who serve as lead translators for their families, students who are working to help provide for their families as well,” Delgado said. “Our students are incredibly resilient and strong and they work really hard to continue their academics but also to support their families.”
The Access Center shipped hundreds of supplies to underrepresented students across the state who are a part of their pre-collegiate and collegiate programs, mailing essentials such as textbooks and laptops but also items like snacks and painting supplies so students could log into virtual support meetings and participate in activities to keep them coming back.
Taylor, CSU’s vice president of enrollment, said programs targeting vulnerable student populations were crucial to their efforts to keep students on track and in college.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Taylor said. “There still is value in earning a college credential, whether that’s a certificate in welding or a two-year associate degree or beyond. We’re not going anywhere.”
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