Community colleges across the country have been an essential part of higher education. During the pandemic, many are seeing a decline in enrollment as issues like child care and internet access affect students.
"It's an issue. We did a survey in the spring semester of our students and about 24% of our students said they either had no WiFi access or it was spotty and that’s a quarter of our students," said Rebecca Ashford, President of Chattanooga State Community College.
Dr. Ashford says their school enrollment is down by 7%. Chattanooga State Community College even started a technology pantry, similar to a food pantry but instead of food it offers donated laptops and other technology materials to help equip students with online learning.
"I think the uncertainty of the whole world and situation that we’re in, the demands of family, uncertainty about jobs and the lack of technology access - or just the fear of it because a lot of students are fearful of taking online classes. I think it's just the perfect storm," said Dr. Ashford.
"A lot of our students are concerned about what should they do. Should I go back to school? Should I stay in school? There's a lot of concerns, [students who] need to go out and make money, maybe someone in their family has lost a job," said Dr. Carole Goldsmith, President of Fresno City College in California.
Fresno City College is reporting a 15% decline in enrollment. Like Chattanooga State Community College, Fresno City College students aren't able to take a number of classes that require in-person learning. Classes like welding, science labs and more.
"Our performing arts. We have a very large theatrical program; dance, song, music and all of those programs we’re not able to bring them back face-to-face so a lot of them unfortunately are dropping out," said Dr. Goldsmith.
Dr. Goldsmith says, at the same time, they're seeing some spikes in classes that many students use to transfer to a four-year university, like engineering and math. Students possibly finding it more economical to take the courses online at their local community college than spend the money on a virtual university tuition.
"Some of those counts that we’re seeing increase in some of the general education transfer courses is really quite telling and I think as we move forward it may change how we do business for many years to come," said Dr. Goldsmith.
The community college has also been loaning out laptops and WiFi hotspots to students who need them.
At Chattanooga State, educators are hoping students who've been unable to continue classes know that the school is ready and here for them when they're able to come back. And that, in general, they don't fall too far behind.
"We do know that students who take a gap year are, I think it's about 25% or so, less likely to complete a degree. And so, we’ve been really trying to get the message out about not taking a gap year and continuing your education," said Dr. Ashford.