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U.S. community college enrollments plummet amid pandemic

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Calls have become a regular part of her job at a community college like others in the United States which have seen a significant drop in enrollment as students grapple with financial, family and learning challenges. virtual.

I didn’t know so many people were struggling, said Irakoze, 20, who studies medical laboratory science and works part-time for the university. So many students don’t come back.

Across the country, enrollment at community colleges that offer two-year degrees and vocational training and often attract older students looking to learn new skills fell 10% from fall 2019 to fall. 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

They were the hardest hit across all colleges, and four-year universities saw only slight declines, beating many predictions that the outcome would be worse.

While it’s not surprising that fewer freshmen have enrolled in four-year colleges and community colleges, delaying studies until campuses fully reopen, the pandemic has had a much greater impact. heavy on older adult students who frequently choose the community college route. Many have lost their jobs or don’t have time for their own schooling as they supervise their children’s online classes.

The majority of them work, many of them in industries decimated by the pandemic, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges. Trying to navigate this and take classes is a really tough challenge right now.

Depression and anxiety have also disrupted the academic careers of community college students, including Stephanie Cruz Vazquez.

She said her severe anxiety was so magnified by her viral worries that she decided last year to take a year off from fashion design classes at Mesa Community College near Phoenix.

The pandemic has really pushed me over the edge, said Cruz Vazquez, 20.

She ended up being infected with COVID-19 with her parents. They have all recovered and Cruz Vazquez is now working for a local city council run campaign with plans to return to college this year.

More Americans tend to turn to teaching at community colleges during an economic downturn, looking to learn new job skills or change careers. But the magnitude of the pandemic slowdown, which has forced many to stay at home, appears to have upended usual trends, education experts have said.

This confuses advocates and policymakers who cite community colleges as important options for low-income Americans. In a Senate hearing this month, Miguel Cardona, President Joe Bidens chosen for education secretary, called for federal financial support to help harm community colleges, calling them a best-kept secret of the nation.

Even in good economic times, many community college students struggle to stay in school while juggling the demands of supporting families, paying rent and paying tuition.

The added challenge of the pandemic was too much for many students, said Ralph Thompson, acting dean of students at Phoenix College.

Its enrollment was 10,978 in fall 2019, but dropped to 9,446 a year later, a drop of 14%, according to the Maricopa County Community College District, which counts Phoenix College among its 10 community colleges.

Thompson instructed Irakoze to call his comrades to see how they are doing, saying they must feel committed during their isolation.

Students need to hear that someone understands what they are going through, Thompson said.

Community colleges across the United States have reported a growing demand for students who need help with feeding, prompting them to expand pantries and grocery programs, in some cases tripling the amount of food distributed in recent years.

At MassBay Community College, near Boston, requests for meal assistance grants have increased 80% since last year. Dinora Torres, a single mother with four young daughters, said the program has helped her stay enrolled.

If I didn’t have that, I’m not sure if I could have made it, said Torres, 29, who hopes to transfer to a four-year college and earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting. It was really difficult. A lot of nights I don’t sleep. Some days I had to send my kids to my parents so I could work all day to catch up.

MassBay suffered a 10% drop in enrollment, but authorities increased humanitarian aid for students. Torres said university-arranged donors bought his family a Thanksgiving meal and Christmas gifts for his daughters.

They each offered to my daughters. I wasn’t even going to celebrate the holidays this year because I didn’t have the money, Torres said, fighting back tears.

Supporters are hoping the slowdown in enrollment is temporary, and some predict many students will return to class when campuses reopen and jobs resume.

But at least some would have to forgo higher education, which experts say could translate into a lifetime of lower incomes and financial challenges.

We fear losing some permanently, said David Podell, president of MassBay. They can follow up later, but each year they postpone their studies, the less they will earn in their life and the later stability will come.

This change also illustrates how the pandemic has widened racial inequalities in education.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, the drop in community college enrollment was most pronounced among black students and Native Americans, both of which have seen a 13% drop in the past year. Enrollments at white and Hispanic community colleges fell 10% and Asian enrollments fell 5%.

About 60% of students at Phoenix College are racial minorities, but officials said it was too early to determine whether minorities had suffered disproportionate declines.

Angelica Larraga, who attends a Phoenix College paralegal program, said the pandemic had forced her to give up working as a traveling hairdresser because she couldn’t visit clients’ homes.

Larraga, 35, has sons aged 7 and 10 and said the past year has been stressful with them struggling with distance learning.

The scholarships pay for Larragas’ tuition and books, but the family’s finances were so tight last summer that they got help from the local food bank.

I’m just trying to make it all work, Larraga said.

Binkley reported from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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