During the last recession, enrollment at community colleges jumped up by 33 percent. Adults flocked to the two-year institutions in hopes of attaining the skills necessary for more secure jobs after the economy stabilized. This time around, community colleges aren’t so lucky.
Some experts initially thought the pandemic would lead to an increase in students pursuing their degrees at community colleges.
“Whenever the economy is not doing great, you would expect the community college enrollment to go up,” said Justin Ortagus, Assistant Professor of Higher Education Administration & Policy and Director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida, “but that is not necessarily the case in the midst of the pandemic.”
In the fall of 2020, Santa Fe College recorded a 12 percent decrease in enrollment, while the College of Central Florida in Ocala saw a decline of more than seven percent. They’re part of the national trend of falling enrollment at community colleges. Recent studies done by the National Student Clearinghouse show that enrollment at community colleges has dropped by over 10 percent nationwide this past fall semester.
“This pandemic is introducing additional disadvantages for the already disadvantaged,” Ortagus said.
If enrollment numbers continue to decrease, colleges like Santa Fe and the College of Central Florida in Ocala are potentially in danger of budget cuts.
“Higher education is one of the first areas that is going to be cut. This already underfunded institution type is going to be taking a hit,” Ortagus said.
Without these institutions to provide communities with an accessible and affordable education, the educated workforce will decline, decreasing wages and increasing the racial wealth inequality gap. Public two-year institutions are essential to the economic development of our local communities; they work in unison with the local economy.
“Community colleges are extremely responsive to local labor market needs,” Ortagus said. “If there is a demand for certain types of employees, community colleges can offer credentials, certificates, and associate degrees in those areas to respond to the local needs and make sure they are serving their communities in effective ways.”
Santa Fe College is part of Get There Florida, a Rapid Credentialing Program consisting of accelerated certifications that prepare students to enter the workforce.
These 20-week programs offer a fast-tracked education at a lower cost than Florida’s four-year universities.
Initially, the more affordable tuition costs at two-year institutions were appealing to prospective students. At Santa Fe College, annual tuition is only $2,562 compared to the University of Florida’s $6,380. However, the transition to online and distance learning has led some to step back from pursuing their degree in the fall.
Community colleges offer low-income students an opportunity to fit a higher education into their lives. On-campus advisers, day care centers and free high-speed internet are just some of the resources that allowed students to pursue their degree.
These tools that were once convenient for students in times of need are now proving to be much more of a challenge to utilize.
“It’s difficult because you can’t be near someone for them to help you,” Alexa Schmidt, a freshman at Santa Fe said. “You have to make an appointment for everything. You can’t even walk in to make an appointment; you have to make appointments to even enter the building.”
With institutions transitioning to online learning, higher education is becoming less accessible to low-income students.
“The decrease in community college enrollment can be explained by the students that community colleges serve,” Ortagus said. “They are disproportionately adults, parents, working and lower-income students. We have to take a step back and think about what that means amid a pandemic.”
Before the pandemic, parents had day cares and primary schools to keep their children busy while they attended college. Now, many of these centers and schools have gone virtual due to health and safety concerns, leaving parents little time to attend their own classes.
Finances are a factor as well. Some Santa Fe students have taken up second jobs in order to supplement income losses during the recession, others simply no longer have the funds to afford higher education. High-speed internet can be a luxury — and a roadblock — for low-income students.
A college education may be available with a few clicks of a button, but it’s not that simple for those with financial insecurity.
“If you’re facing substantial financial challenges and have to make difficult decisions, the high-speed internet access may not be something that is going to work right now for low-income students who are just trying to keep the lights on,” Ortagus said.
In an effort to encourage students to continue working toward their degrees, community colleges are working to alleviate any problems that have risen due to the pandemic. With their upcoming development of the $18.8 million Blount Center in downtown Gainesville, Santa Fe is working toward maintaining their relationship with their students and aiming for an increase in enrollment in the upcoming semester.
Steve Vutsinas, Coordinator of the Counseling Center at Santa Fe College, said that Santa Fe has certified their counseling staff in telehealth counseling in order to continue aiding students no matter where they are.
“We have had students who have had to leave Gainesville, but they wanted to stay enrolled,” Vutsinas said. “And we can still continue providing counseling through these difficult times. Students experience their own unique stressors, and when you put a pandemic on top of that it is going to make things more challenging.”